New government proposals to reform age assessments for asylum-seeking children seriously risk them mistakenly being deemed to be adults. The plans would allow more invasive tests to be undertaken on children arriving in this country, and could result in many of them being exposed to safeguarding risks and become victims of the hostile environment created by the Home Office.
The proposals come from the Home Office’s recently published ‘New Plan for Immigration‘. 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.
Currently, the policy states that individuals should be treated as an adult if their appearance and demeanour suggests they are ‘over 25 years of age’. New policy would change this to ‘significantly over 18 years of age’.
However, this directly goes against current Home Office guidance surrounding assessments, as it states that medical methods are not frequently 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 of and involvement of social work sector in the board is currently unclear.
The introduction of these new plans exacerbates already existing narratives that depict adult asylum seekers posing as children as a common and threatening occurrence. 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 debate, in which there have been many cases in which unaccompanied children have been wrongly deemed as adults.
The Home Office are choosing to ignore the safeguarding risks that age assessments create for children deemed as adults
In 2019, 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 extremities 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 settings with them. They also highlight that they currently send £46,000 a year to Local Authorities for each unaccompanied asylum seeking child. They state that if adults are wrongly deemed as children, this money could have been used to provide resources for other children.
However, the Home Office places itself in a precarious position with such justification. Although they are stating that these new measures would be used to improve safeguarding surrounding adults deemed as children, they choose to ignore the safeguarding risks that age assessments create for children deemed as adults.
“We have worked with other children who are deeply traumatised and left unsupported and isolated in hotels that have no provisions for safeguarding children.”
Placing children in adult accommodation has been found to create situations in which they are bullied and abused by adults which then impacts on 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. In a comment, SWWB demonstrated the real risk that wrongly assessed children face.
‘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.’
The British Association of Social Workers importantly called for the Home Office to provide some clarity to the proposals. In a comment, they stated: ‘While it seems social workers will continue to undertake age assessments, what precisely is the role of the proposed NAAB?
‘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.’
Hostility Towards Children
New proposals over asylum-seeking children and age assessments mean subjecting children to the hostile environment that they have created for migrants in the UK over the past decade. However, it appears as so that the Home Office is too concerned with the over- publicised myth of an adult being placed in a school than it is ensuring that unaccompanied children deemed as adults are not placed in dangerous and vulnerable situations.
These new proposals bring up the question of whether the Home Office should be subjecting children to the hostile environment that they have created for migrants in the UK over the past decade
As Social Workers Without Borders have argued, it is imperative that these policy changes are reviewed and the consequences of the changes are considered. ‘Unaccompanied children are likely to have travelled to the UK via unofficial routes and 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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