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Abuse and exploitation: Incorrect age assessments ‘alarming child protection failure’

Figures were obtained through FOIs from local authorities found that nearly 500 children were placed in adult accommodation or detention in the first half of 2023 alone.

26/01/24

Abuse and exploitation: Incorrect age assessments ‘alarming child protection failure’

A new report reveals that child refugees who come to the UK alone are facing harassment, abuse and criminalisation as a result of being wrongly treated as adults and placed in accommodation with adult strangers.

The report, written jointly by charities Refugee Council, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Humans for Rights Network, 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. In the first half of 2023 alone, nearly 500 children were placed in adult accommodation or detention.

Campaigners have warned of dangers of exploitation and abuse of vulnerable children as adult settings pose significant risks to children in the asylum system.

Passali, a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan whose name has been changed for this article, said the experience made him suffer with anxiety and depression.

“When I arrived, I didn’t feel good. They gave me a paper, and my age was incorrect, I didn’t know English. I said this is not correct, they said you can correct it later. I’m 16 and a half, they said I was 18. I didn’t feel good. I have a picture of my Taskira [Afghan ID].

“We suffer with depression and anxiety. Every day we are waiting, today, tomorrow, another day, we hope they will move us.”

The report, titled Forced Adulthood, shows that children as young as 14 have been forced to share rooms with unrelated adults, with no safeguards in place. It includes direct accounts from children who felt unsafe, scared, and traumatised by their experiences. Some children faced harassment, abuse, and mental health crises.

The report also includes a number of cases where children wrongly treated as adults were charged with immigration offences under the Nationality and Borders Act, with 14 spending periods of time in custody with adults in adult prisons.

Maddie Harris, Director of Humans for Rights Network, said the failing is a ‘direct result’ of Government policy.

“These children are terrified and continue to be profoundly affected by this experience of wrongful criminalisation, which is a direct result of flawed Home Office decision-making at the point of arrival and a profoundly harmful policy of criminalising asylum seekers for the act of arrival in the UK.”

It warns of serious risks of abuse and trauma from children sharing rooms with adult strangers due to the lack of safeguards in place to protect them.

This new data was obtained through Freedom of Information (FoI) requests from local authorities in England, asking how many individuals claiming to be children were referred to them after being deemed adults by the Home Office. 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 detention. Of the 847 cases where decisions had been made, 485 children (57%) were found to be under 18 by the local authority and removed from unsafe facilities. This builds on 2022 data, confirming that over an 18-month period, at least 1,300 child refugees were failed by the Home Office’s flawed age assessment process and suffered harm. The authors warn that real numbers are likely to be much higher as data was not received from all local authorities.

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. The majority of these cases have either been accepted as children by local authorities or are in the process of trying to have their age accepted. 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.

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said the findings show ‘an alarming child protection failure.

“Hidden from view, very vulnerable child refugees are being exposed to harm and abuse as a result of inaccurate Home Office decision making. Each case is a child who is being put at risk and whose welfare is being forgotten. It is an alarming child protection failure and the Government must take urgent action so every child is kept safe.”

The charities are now calling 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. They also call for full statistics on age disputes to be published, showing the number of children who are taken into care from the adult asylum system, as the Government currently refuses to disclose this data.

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