Report finds 'flawed' UK age assessments a risk to child migrants

Fourteen children were placed in prison after being charged with offences under the Nationality and Borders Act

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Many child migrants are being wrongly assessed as adults on their arrival in the UK, which puts them at risk of abuse, campaigners have said.

At least 1,300 refugee children were placed in unsupervised adult accommodation or detention between January 2022 and June 2023 due to flaws in the Home Office’s approach to determining the age of arrivals, according to research.

Campaigners including the Refugee Council, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Humans for Rights Network said in a report that vulnerable young people are being excluded from child protection and welfare frameworks because of the government’s move to make the asylum system more punitive.

It also warns that measures in the Illegal Migration Act could lead to hundreds of children being wrongly removed from the UK and sent to Rwanda.

Many may be sent other countries where they may be at serious risk without ever having contact with child protection professionals or a chance to challenge the Home Office’s decision, the report said.

In response to freedom of information requests, 69 councils said they received 1,004 referrals of young people who had been sent to adult accommodation or detention between January and June 2023.

Of these referrals, decisions were made on age in 847 cases, with 57 per cent found to be children.

This means at least 485 children were placed at significant risk in adult accommodation in just six months, the report said.

The findings, built on data gathered by Humans for Rights Network between January 2022 and June 2023, which recorded 832 instances when there were “strong reasons to believe” that a minor was sharing accommodation with an unrelated adult.

Of these cases, 406 children have since had their age accepted by local authorities, with another 123 in care pending an assessment outcome, and 136 receiving legal support to prove they are under 18.

Humans for Rights Network has been unable to contact another 50 refugees, which the report said raises “serious questions about their safety and whereabouts”.

“This shows that in 18 months over 1,300 children were wrongly assessed to be adults by the Home Office," it said.

“These figures are likely to be an underestimate because not all local authorities collect this data and not all children are being referred to children’s services.”

The report described the Home Office’s approach to assessment as flawed, with officials using a short visual assessment, which can include judgments based on “demeanour”, shortly after refugees arrive in the UK.

This is despite the Home Office’s own guidance saying that “physical appearance is a notoriously unreliable basis for assessment of chronological age”.

The report highlights that if a person is deemed to be an adult by the Home Office, they are not referred for additional assessment.

This process is said to then lead to children being exposed to “significant risks and potential harm” in unsupervised shared accommodation or asylum detention with adult strangers.

Local authorities are also not routinely informed of their presence, placing the responsibility on the child to seek support.

The Human for Rights Network said it has identified 15 cases of children wrongly treated as adults being charged with offences under the Nationality and Borders Act, with 14 of them spending time in adult prisons.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, called on the government to take urgent action so children are protected.

“Hidden from view, very vulnerable child refugees are being exposed to harm and abuse as a result of inaccurate Home Office decision-making," Mr Solomon said.

“Each case is a child who is being put at risk and whose welfare is being forgotten.

"It is an alarming child protection failure and the government must take urgent action so every child is kept safe.”

Maddie Harris, director of Humans for Rights Network, said children have spent up to seven months in adult prisons.

“These children are terrified and continue to be profoundly affected by this experience of wrongful criminalisation, which is a direct result of flawed Home Office decision-making at the point of arrival and a profoundly harmful policy of criminalising asylum seekers for the act of arrival in the UK," Ms Harris said.

Kamena Dorling, director of policy at the Helen Bamber Foundation, said government plans to assess young refugees using X-rays will not address the problem.

“It will simply cause further harm to those seeking protection in the UK. What we need is urgent change to the flawed policy of officials assessing age on sight,” Ms Dorling said.

The report included testimony from child migrants affected by being treated as adults, whose names were changed to protect their identity.

Describing his experience, Jamal, 16, from Afghanistan said: “They said I was 25. I felt sad and shocked.

“I’m 16 years old. I’ve been in the hotel about two months. I live alone here, with adults, I don’t have money, I’m worried about the future, I don’t feel good at all.”

Helen, 16, from Eritrea, was rescued from a small boat but was treated with suspicion by officials.

“First of all they asked in a group, then when I said my age they said to me you are lying, so they took us to a private room and a lady asked me some different questions.

"She said ‘OK, your age. I can guess your age is 22’.

“She said because you arrive by boat, you must know what you are doing, therefore you are over 18.”

“Age assessments can be challenging and there is no single method which can determine a person’s age with precision," a Home Office spokesperson said.

“Many individuals arriving in the UK who claim to be children often don’t have clear evidence like an original passport or identity document to back this up.

“We are strengthening our age assessment process, including establishing the National Age Assessment Board and specifying scientific methods of age assessments.

“Measures under the Illegal Migration Act will ensure the swift removal of individuals who have been assessed as adults and who have no right to remain in the UK.”

Updated: January 22, 2024, 10:41 PM