Age assessments of children

23 January 2024: Written jointly by the Refugee Council, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Humans for Rights Network ‘Forced Adulthood -The Home Office’s incorrect determination of age and how this leaves child refugees at risk.

It was written jointly by the Refugee Council, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Humans for Rights Network. It found that at least 1,300 refugee children were placed in unsupervised adult accommodation and detention in an 18-month period (January 2022 to June 2023), after being wrongly age-assessed on arrival in the UK. We think that real numbers are likely to be much higher as data was not received from all local authorities. 

This data paints a bleak picture of separated children‘s experiences on arrival in the UK. Behind each case there is a child who has been failed by the system, experienced abuse, exploitation, distress, or harm. All of these traumas are entirely preventable, children are subjected to these harms as a direct result of being wrongly placed in adult accommodation due to the Home Office age assessment policy at the point of entry.

This is a safeguarding crisis on an unprecedented scale which we like to bring to your attention in the hope it will be possible for us to work together to address system failures and ensure that all children are protected from the moment they arrive in the UK.

Additional findings reveal that:

  • Children as young as 14 have been forced to share rooms with unrelated adults, with no safeguards in place;
  • 14 children spent periods of time in custody with adults in adult prisons because they were wrongly treated as adults and charged with immigration offences under the Nationality and Borders Act;
  • In the first half of 2023, nearly 500 children were placed in adult accommodation or detention;
  • Figures were obtained through FOIs from local authorities in England, as the Government refuses to publish data on these children. In responses from 69 local authorities covering the period January to June 2023, over 1,000 referrals were received of children placed in adult asylum housing and detentionOf the 847 cases where decisions had been made, 57 percent (485 children) were found to be under 18 by the local authority and removed from unsafe facilities;
  • In the same 18-month period (from January 2022 to June 2023), over 800 safeguarding episodes were recorded by Humans for Rights Network, where the organisation had strong reasons to believe that a child was sharing accommodation with an unrelated adult.
  • In the same timeframe, the Refugee Council’s Age Dispute Project assisted 185 children who had initially been determined to be adults, with 98 of them subsequently taken into local authority care from an unsafe adult setting, some pending further assessment. 

We made several recommendations based on our findings and direct experience of supporting this group of children through our services. We call on the Home Office to only dispute a child’s claimed age in exceptional circumstances, and to routinely notify local authorities whenever a potential child has been determined by them to be an adult. We also like to see full statistics on age disputes to be published, showing the number of children who are taken into care from the adult asylum system. The Government currently refuses to disclose this data. 

Humans for Rights Network produced a relevant report with Helen Bamber Foundation and Asylum Aid in April 2023 :

12 June 2023: Guardian: Data undermines Jenrick’s claim about asylum seekers saying they are children

Minister said up to a fifth of adult males seeking asylum pretended to be children, but Home Office figures say it is 1%

A claim made in parliament by the immigration minister that up to a fifth of adult male asylum seekers pretend to be children when they arrive in the UK has been undermined by the Home Office’s own data, which shows the actual figure is just 1%.

The factchecking organisation Full Fact has obtained new freedom of information data that shows that between 1 January and 7 November 2022 only about 1% of all males arriving on small boats at Western Jet Foil claimed to be under 18 but were later found to be over 18.

Full Fact has written to Robert Jenrick asking him to correct the parliamentary record or to provide data which supports his claim.

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Updated 25 January 2023: The Use of Biological Methods in Asylum Age Assessments (dated March 2022)

Accuracy of examining bones to determine age In non-medical contexts, bone development and skeletal maturity assessed by these methods is used to assess overall maturity as a proxy for chronological age. The accuracy of these methods has been widely researched. Most children (95%) will have a skeletal maturity age within plus or minus 2 years of their chronological age.

[…] Systematic reviews of bone age assessment methods report that that their accuracy and reliability depend on the ethnicity of the population studied. The average chronological age of reaching skeletal maturity varies according to a range of factors including ethnicity. Some studies show a difference between estimated bone age and actual age for Caucasian
young people between the ages of 2 to 19, of between 2 and 12 months. Studies involving people of different ethnicities show a wider margin of error of between 6 months
and 2 years. One reason for these differences is that these methods do not use reference data that are representative of wider populations, in particular, from those likely to be asylum seekers.

[…] There are mixed views among other stakeholder groups. The British Association of Social Workers state that biological methods do not offer any increase in accuracy compared with existing approaches. There is also no clarity as to how much weight a scientific test would carry relative to information produced from a wider holistic assessment. Biological methods tend to attract support from groups concerned about
abuse of the asylum system, in the belief that they can increase the reliability of age assessments, reduce the number of legal challenges and fraud (where adults claim to be children). Scrutinising the Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said “we are not convinced there is any justification for the use of scientific methods”, and noted that any future regulations must be closely scrutinised to ensure that children’s human rights and privacy are protected.

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Updated 13 January 2023: Justice Gap: Unreliable age tests on asylum seekers may leave children ‘frightened and unsafe’ report reveals

X-rays and other biological tests could be carried out on children seeking asylum, potentially causing physical and psychological harm, and placing them at risk of radiation. A recently published government paper drew attention to these risks, whilst pointing out that there is “no infallible” method of measuring age. The report also confirms that there is ‘no method…that can predict age with precision.’

The report published by the Interim Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee reveals that biological assessments would potentially expose children to harmful “ionising radiation” and could “increase distress” that is already caused through the social worker “Merton compliant” process of age assessment.

The potentially dangerous biological tests were announced as part of a plan, announced last year by Priti Patel, to stop men from ‘masquerading as children’. The reliability of the proposed tests has however been called into question by rights groups and experts.

According to the Refugee Council, in 2021 they assisted 233 young asylum seekers were deemed to be adults by the home office. Of those, 219 were found to be children upon further assessment by local authority social workers.

The Helen Bamber foundation gathered information from just 55 local authorities and found that in 2021, 450 young people were referred to local authorities for age assessments and of these, three quarters were found to be children. The Refugee council argues that the high level of decisions being overturned ‘challenges the view put forward by the government that the problem is primarily that many of those who claim to be children are not.’

Children who are incorrectly assessed to be adults can be sent to live in hotels, hostel-style asylum accommodation, or former military barracks, and forced to share rooms with adults, without any further support from their local authority. This accommodation is also often overcrowded, with poor access to healthcare and a lack of proper safeguarding.

The Refugee Council’s report warns that children who have fled war, conflict, violence, and persecution and claimed asylum in the UK are left “frightened and unsafe” with such placements ‘potentially exposing them to exploitation and abuse, mental and physical harm’.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council states: ‘When dealing with children the highest level of safeguarding must apply. Yet every day, children are getting lost in an asylum system that is making snap, careless decisions about their age. We know from our own work that this has dreadful ramifications for children who simply want to be safe and are alone, with no one to protect them.’

The Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland responded to the proposals, tweeting: ‘Using ‘scientific methods’ to assess child refugees is widely condemned as invasive, traumatising & inaccurate. Councils should continue with their own ‘Merton compliant’ age assessment & refuse wherever possible to accept the use of ‘scientific methods’.’ The Children’s Commissioner for England has not yet commented.

The planned measures are part of a larger series of controversial immigration policies, coming weeks after the Home Secretary announced plans to continue deportations to Rwanda.

Updated 27 November 2022: Guardian: Child asylum seekers detained as adults after UK Home Office ‘alters birth dates’

Unaccompanied child refugees describe attacks in notorious Manston camp after officials ‘ignore or discount’ ID documents

The Home Office is routinely changing the dates of birth of unaccompanied child asylum seekers to classify them as adults, according to experts who say the practice is now happening on a “horrifying scale”.

As a result, many children are being wrongly sent to the notorious Home Office site at Manston in Kent, the experts warn, and detained in unsafe conditions for up to several weeks.

The Refugee Council said interviews with 16 children released from Manston revealed that even in the cases of some boys who had identity documents stating they were children, the Home Office changed their dates of birth to make them over 18.

Read more:

Updated 1 November 2022: Independent: Charities outrage at Suella Braverman’s ‘harmful’ child migrant X-ray plans

Embattled home secretary Suella Braverman is to push ahead with controversial plans that risk forcing vulnerable child refugees to undergo X-rays to prove they are not lying about their age.

Ms Braverman has been accused of using “shameful” and inflammatory language that put migrants in danger after she claimed the UK was facing an “invasion” on its south coast.

Now charities say the under-fire cabinet minister, who was reappointed to the job just a week after she was forced to resign over a security breach, risks measures that will ‘harm’ children.

Ms Braverman pledged that there would be “robust” new checks of those claiming to be children introduced in the new year, warning that ministers had to “clamp down” on the problem, as she defended her handling of the Kent asylum centre crisis on Monday night.

The Home Office later said that her comments related to an announcement in January, when her predecessor Priti Patel was the home secretary, that “new scientific methods” would be used to assess the age of asylum seekers.

A scientific group was also set up to advise ministers on the issue. Their findings are thought to be at an advanced stage.

At the time the Home Office said the move would bring UK policy “in line with other countries”.

It added: “Scientific methods are used by most European countries, who primarily use X-ray scans, and sometimes CT scans and MRI imaging to view key parts of the body.”

Finland and Norway “take radiographs to examine the development of teeth and the fusion of bones in the wrist. In both countries, two certified experts will carry out the age assessment and must jointly agree on the person’s age.” In France, X-rays are taken “to examine the fusion of the collar bone, alongside dental and wrist X-rays, while in Greece, dental X-rays are used alongside social worker assessments.”

Ms Braverman said the checks were necessary because when it came to Albanian migrants the majority were adult males, “not by majority women or children or elderly people, and this claim of being a child is something that we are going to clamp down on.”

“In the new year, we will be delivering more robust age assessment procedures so that there will be less abuse of this very problem,” she pledged MPs.

But Hannah Marwood, from refugee charity Care4Calais, said her organisation had supported hundreds of children who the government had incorrectly taken through what is known as an age dispute and the cases had raised serious safeguarding concerns. “The children we have worked with have been placed in accommodation with adults they do not know, which is a scary situation for any minor to be left in,” she said.

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Guardian: Child asylum seekers say UK officials pressed them to lie about their age

Boy recorded telling guard he was told he could move from Manston holding centre more quickly if he said he was over 18

Child asylum seekers who have recently arrived in the UK on small boats say screening officials have put pressure on them to say they are adults, the Guardian has been told.

In some cases, the children say they were told that if they said they were over 18 they would be able to leave the troubled asylum processing site of Manston in Kent more quickly.

A recording said to be of a 16-year-old Eritrean boy speaking to a guard at Manston on 29 October about the pressure he says he was put under to say he was older was passed to the Guardian. The Refugee Council also provided information about three recent interviews their staff carried out with Kurdish boys from Iraq and Iran who made the same claims. A fifth child made the same allegation to the NGO Humans for Rights Network.

The Home Office says the claims, put to them by the Guardian, are unsubstantiated and that the Guardian has failed to provide “concrete evidence” to back up the allegations.

Mobile phones are confiscated from people arriving on small boats, so the children who made these claims had no opportunity to record initial conversations with officials.

In the recording at Manston, the Eritrean boy can be heard speaking to a guard who is questioning him about his journey, his age and his arrival in the UK: “First they say: ‘you are over 18’, I say I’m not. If you say you are under 18 you will be in problems. They say three times: ‘if you say more than 18, if you say 19 you will go out from this place’. Other friends, too, they say ‘we are 15, 16’, they say ‘you are lying’.”

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Guardian: Fifteen-year-old boy charged with trying to kill child asylum seeker

Accused will appear at the Old Bailey next month following stabbing near hotel in west London

A 15-year-old boy has been charged with the attempted murder of a child asylum seeker in west London. He has been remanded into secure accommodation and will appear at the Old Bailey next month.

The charges follow a stabbing incident close to a hotel in the west London area used by the Home Office to accommodate adult male asylum seekers just before midnight on 22 October.

Initially the victim had been classified as an adult by the Home Office, but he was later confirmed to be a child. He was taken to hospital following the stabbing. After being discharged, he was taken into the care of children’s social services in the borough where the hotel is situated.

The Guardian has received reports that the asylum seeker, who was being accommodated at the hotel, was found bleeding near the building after the incident.

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