By Aaron Gates-Lincoln
The UK government announced in March a set of proposals looking to overhaul the asylum system. The proposed new age assessment procedures are being criticised for putting asylum-seeking young people and children at risk of being mistakenly judged as adults. The plans advocate for more invasive tests for determining age and may result in children being exposed to safeguarding risks. The proposals come from the Home Office’s recently published ‘New Plan for Immigration‘.
Under this ‘new plan’, age assessments would be undertaken by immigration officials and other staff, instead of by social workers, according to proposals. As part of this, they are also looking into introducing ‘scientific methods’ to help improve the accuracy of age assessments. The current policy states that individuals should be treated as an adult if their appearance and demeanour suggest they are ‘over 25 years of age’.
The new policy would change this to ‘significantly over 18 years of age’. However, this goes directly against current Home Office guidance on assessments, which states that medical methods are rarely used due to larger margins for error. A National Age Assessment Board (NAAB) would also be introduced to oversee the changes. The NAAB would ‘set out the criteria, process and requirements’ for age assessments, and also do assessments of their own when needed. However, the make-up and involvement of the social work sector in the board is currently unclear.
The introduction of these policies dangerously exacerbates existing narratives and myths that depict asylum-seeking adults posing as children as a common occurrence. On the rare chance that this occurs, it is often because unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are accommodated and supported within the care system whilst adults are given less support and are subject to being placed in detention centres.
In the proposed plans, the Home Office justifies the changes by citing that between 2016 and 2020, 54% of individuals who had their age disputed were found to be adults. However, this framing ignores the other side of the issue, in which there have been many cases of unaccompanied children having been wrongly deemed as adults.
In 2019, the Refugee Council undertook an Age Dispute Project. Of the 92 cases of young people assessed as adults, 41 of them were eventually found to be children, with a further 45 of the cases being ongoing. These numbers show the extraordinary margin for error in age assessments, which are putting vulnerable children at risk of being given little to no support and facing the harsh conditions of detention centres.
In addition to this narrative, the Home Office further justify their plans by emphasising the safeguarding risks that exist if adults are wrongly deemed to be children and are then placed in mixed settings with them. However, they place themselves in a precarious position with such justification. This is because this view completely ignores the existence of the safeguarding risks attached to mistakenly deeming a child to be an adult.
Placing children in adult accommodation has been found to create situations in which they are bullied and abused by adults which then impacts their quality of life and ability to cope with independent life. In response to the new plans, Stewart Maclachlan, senior legal at Coram Children’s Legal Centre stated, “The new proposals on the framework for assessing age are deeply worrying. They will increase the already real risk to children of being placed in accommodation with adults or held in adult detention centres.”
These concerns are mirrored by Social Workers Without Borders (SWWB), an organisation that supports children and adults through the asylum process. They stated, “We recently worked with a child who had been detained in three different immigration removal centres, and was very nearly removed from the country before he had even had access to adequate legal advice. We have worked with other children who are deeply traumatised and left unsupported and isolated in hotels that have no provisions for safeguarding children.”
New proposals over asylum-seeking children and age assessments risk further subjecting children to the hostile environment that the Home Office has created for migrants in the UK over the past decade. These children already have limited access to regularisation pathways such as indefinite leave to remain or citizenship, and these new proposed policies simply make life harder for them.
It appears that the Home Office is too concerned with the over-publicised myth of an adult being placed in a school than it is with ensuring that unaccompanied children deemed as adults are not placed in dangerous and vulnerable situations. It is imperative that pressure is applied to the government for these policy changes to be reviewed, and that the negative consequences of the changes are considered.
The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.