By Alice Blackwell and Mithran Samuel
“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 immigration officials and other staff – and not just social workers – would be able to carry out age assessments and 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 explore replacing the current requirement that a person is treated 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”.
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”.
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.”