‘Deeply worrying’ age assessment changes will increase risks to child asylum seekers, warn charities

Social work and children's rights bodies warn government plans will lead to more children being wrongly assessed as adults and criticise plans to dilute social work role and introduce 'scientific' checks

Young asylum seeker
Picture posed by model (photo: pixelrain/Adobe Stock)

By Alice Blackwell and Mithran Samuel (story updated: 10 May 2021)

“Deeply worrying” government proposals to reform age assessments for unaccompanied children will increase the likelihood they will be wrongly deemed adults and placed at risk in immigration detention centres.

That was the warning from social work and children’s rights bodies after the Home Office published the proposals this week in its new plan for immigration.

Under the plans, the government would allow assessors to use “scientific methods” to determine age. This is despite current Home Office guidance stating that it is not policy to commission dental checks or x-rays to inform an age assessment and that scientific methods “can only estimate age and as a consequence there will always be a margin for error”.

In addition, the latest policy plan said the Home Office would legislate to give immigration officials and other non-social work staff the ability to carry out “reasonable initial assessments of age”. As part of this, it said it would explore replacing the current requirement for immigration officials to treat a claimant as an adult if their physical appearance and demeanour strongly suggested they were over 25, with one saying they should appear to be “significantly over 18”.

The new system of age assessment would be overseen by a National Age Assessment Board, which set out the “criteria, process and requirements to be followed”, review local authority assessments as well as carrying out age assessments itself when necessary. The policy paper did not state how the board would be constituted and how far it would include social work expertise.

While unaccompanied children claiming asylum are accommodated and supported within the care system, those deemed to be adults are given much less support, with some subject to immigration detention.

Safeguarding concerns and resource considerations

In justifying the policy, the government cited figures showing that, where age was disputed from 2016-20, in 54% of cases the person was found to be an adult.

However, the figures show that, from January 2017 to June 2020, 49% of cases of dispute resulted in the person being deemed an adult, this rose to 64% in the last six months of 2020.

During this period, the Home Office commissioned a social work team at an intake unit in Kent to carry out age assessments for children arriving in Dover whose age was disputed.

The government also justified the policy on safeguarding grounds, citing the risks of adults being treated as children and placed in settings alongside them.

Amid widespread concerns among port authorities, such as Kent, Hillingdon and Portsmouth councils, about the disproportionate costs they face for supporting unaccompanied children, the Home Office also cited the resources (£46,000 a year each) required to support them. It said that treating adults as children “reduces the resources available to help other children”.

‘Deeply worrying’

However, in response to the plans, Stewart MacLachlan, senior legal and policy officer at Coram Children’s Legal Centre, said: “Assessing age is difficult, with a wide margin for error. 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.

“There is no accurate way to assess age, and an increased focus on medical or ‘scientific’ methods will cause further confusion, as well as raising significant ethical issues.”

Social Workers Without Borders (SWWB), who support children and adults within the asylum process, said the plan “fails to recognise the very serious safeguarding concern for children being wrongly assessed as adults and ending up unsupported in adult accommodation or detention facilities”.

It added: “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.

“We need an asylum system that is fit for purpose and that has to entail ensuring the unaccompanied children are not placed at risk of harm, this new proposal is the antithesis of that.”

It also criticised the plans too use “scientific methods”, citing a statement by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health that there was a five-year margin of error for medical assessments. It urged the government to state which technologies it would use for assessments. The Home Office has said it will be “guided by the research and evidence on which scientific methods to use”.

‘Fundamentally flawed’

SWWB also criticised plans for immigration officers to carry out age assessments at the border, saying: “Our experience is that these assessments at the border are fundamentally flawed as the child needs recuperation and safety before a proper assessment of their needs can be undertaken.”

The British Association of Social Workers also raised concerns about the proposals, saying they posed “more questions than they answer”.

“For example, while it seems social workers will continue to undertake age assessments, what precisely is the role of the proposed NAAB (National Age Assessment Board) and how will this fit with social workers ethical duties and responsibilities to their employer?

“We are also told ‘scientific’ methods of age determination will be introduced. What exactly are these methods? BASW is against any dilution of standards that will result in asylum seeking children not being allowed the vital protections they are entitled to by law, putting children’s safety at risk.”

National resource ‘must be social work based

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), which has produced guidance on age assessments, was not directly critical of the plans, but stressed that the NAAB must be social-work based.

Vice president Charlotte Ramsden said: “Conducting age assessments is complex and specialist work and is frequently the subject of legal challenge; individual local authorities cannot be expected to undertake this alone.

“ADCS has been encouraging the Home Office and the Department for Education to think longer term about the establishment of a national resource for some time. This should absolutely be social work based with specialist training in place and any decisions made must be concluded at pace. Engaging with gateway local authorities in particular will be key here; they have lots of expertise in this area.

“The safety and best interests of asylum seeking children must be at the heart of any reforms.”

‘No asylum right for those who have passed through safe countries’

The government proposals would also appear to make it harder for unaccompanied children to claim asylum in the first place by stating that those who arrived in the UK having passed through countries deemed to be safe – or who had a connection to a safe country – would not be entitled to claim asylum. Contingent on securing agreements with other countries, it said it would seek to return people to the “safe country of most recent embarkation”.

Placing these provisions in legislation would build on changes to immigration rules introduced in January under which immigration officials could treat claims as inadmissible if the person had come through one or more safe countries in order to come to the UK by choice. Previously they could only do this if the person were accepted for readmission by a third country they had passed through or with which they had a connection.

In December, CCLC said the changes to the rules would put children at risk as many had arrived in the UK after travelling through other countries, for complex reasons including those beyond their control.

‘Undermining our legal commitments’

“These changes seek to undermine our legal commitments and our standards in how we treat some of the most vulnerable children in society,” the charity said at the time.

In relation to the latest plans to tighten asylum requirements, Social Workers Without Borders said: “We are concerned that unaccompanied children are likely to have travelled to the UK via unofficial routes and as such they could be subjected to the other draconian measures within this policy proposal, such as the inadmissibility rule and all the new conditions attached to that. We urgently need to know what protections there will be for children.”

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6 Responses to ‘Deeply worrying’ age assessment changes will increase risks to child asylum seekers, warn charities

  1. Bionic Woman March 26, 2021 at 9:02 pm #

    The system of age assessment has always been deeply flawed and SW assessments often conclude an adult is a minor, if it was thought the adult was 18, 19 or early 20s. This was often done to save thousands of pounds in legal costs defending disputed age assessments in the High Court. The idea that age assessments were solely based on arriving at an accurate age assessment is erroneous to say the least.

    There are numerous genuine unaccompanied minors having to share accomodation with adults claiming to be children, where those adults were either bullying, bossing children around and very controlling, so the existing reception care for those who are genuinely UASC is not safe either.

    In another case, an adult had been treated as a child and accommodated with other children and it was only discovered that he was an adult when he was admitted to a Paediatric ward for renal surgery. The surgeon reached the conclusion his patient was an adult as all of the surgical appliances had to be ordered from adult supplies. Meanwhile the man had been an in-patient on a Paediatric unit, placing all children in that ward at risk. Where was the safety for other children? I recall a number of occasions where minors and/or friends of unaccompanied minors or residential SW staff complained about other ‘alleged minors’ bullying and bossy behaviour towards genuine minors. Flawed age assessments of adults does not safeguard genuine asylum seeking minors.

    At one point in Kent the hundreds of people arriving daily to claim asylum as minors meant it was impossible to find any Foster care placements for British children as virtually all Kent Foster placements had been exhausted. Kent was provided with very little in terms of resources to cope with the problem. The situation only improved when government measures were brought in for other LAs to accept and accommodate UASC from Kent and share their resources.

    I accept that the reasons for coming to the UK are complex. However a major factor is that the UK is very generous in its care and benefits packages specifically to unaccompanied minors. The economic factors cannot be ignored. The support to adult asylum seekers needs to be improved so that asylum seekers do not need to pose as children to get the same services and rights.

  2. Han Wachtel March 27, 2021 at 7:39 am #

    The solution, as ever, requires some common sense and joined-up thinking. The safeguarding element must apply not only to new arrivals claiming to be children, but also to those that ‘child’ will interact with, thus we have previously had the spectacle of ‘someone who looks 40 in a maths class’ situation, as an example.

    How hard is it to use the provided method for those who are obviously children (pre-pubescent) or younger adolescents, while reserving the more intrusive methods for those cases where there is some doubt.

    In a similar vein, it should not fall on local authorities to fund this process. There should be a pot funded by central government which supports those LAs’ engaging in the care and welfare of immigrants, including such extras as age verification.

  3. Andy March 29, 2021 at 11:23 am #

    If a young person seeking asylum in Britain is in possession of an internationally recognised identification document, the responsibilities of the state are very clear indeed. Without such documentation, the state’s decision as to what services may be offered is based on a combination of professional judgement/ethics and political climate and such a decision can be open to doubt and to challenge.
    No scientific method exists which can provide an accurate assessment of age and even then, such methods require one or other form of invasive intervention which is unlikely to be condoned by any responsible authority.
    The competing political, financial, social and moral considerations relevant to these decisions ensure that this issue will remain deeply contentious within the current system of formal service provision.
    The proposal to return asylum seekers to the “safe country of most recent embarkation” is essentially designed to remove the right of asylum from anybody entering the country via unauthorised routes i.e. across the Channel. However this proposal is fundamentally flawed in that it requires agreement from that “safe country” and because of its geographical proximity, this implies France which is under no obligation to offer such an agreement.

  4. Kevin March 30, 2021 at 11:25 am #

    Reading these one would think that no social worker ever wrongly determined that a person was not a child. By all means approach this as an “immigration” issue but spare us the angst about resources denied British children.

  5. Phil Sanderson April 3, 2021 at 4:49 pm #

    The whole intention of the Tories here is to demonise refugees and create more division. The UK takes a pitifully low number of refugees compared to other European countries and the vast number of Refugees are in countries like Jordan and other neighbouring countries to war zones. The reason people come is because of war and conflict and they should be treated with decency and compassion. The Home Office routinely find children to be adults and expose them to risk. We know what the hostile environment did to the Windrush generation this is just more of the same but targeting children. Patel is completely despicable and should not be allowed to get away with this.


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    […] 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 […]