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Home Office to introduce ‘scientific methods’ for refugee age assessments

Priti Patel announces that the Home Office is establishing a new Scientific Advisory Committee to provide advice on ways of checking how old an asylum seeker is, but social workers have raised concerns about the approach.


Home Office to introduce ‘scientific methods’ for refugee age assessments

The Government says the advice will help ensure asylum seeking adults posing as children do not get access to support they are not entitled to, and remove the safeguarding risks of adults being wrongly placed in children’s care system.

“The practice of single grown adult men, masquerading as children claiming asylum is an appalling abuse of our system which we will end,” Home Secretary Priti Patel said, adding: “By posing as children, these adult men go on to access children’s services and schools through deception and deceit; putting children and young adults in school and care at risk.”

However, social workers have questioned the approach saying the rhetoric focuses on the danger of adults being assessed as children, rather than the safeguarding concerns about children wrongly being assessed as adults – and also that the plans themselves are unethical and ineffective.

“There is currently no accurate way to determine precise chronological age. The most ethical and suitable approach is through multi-agency Merton-compliant age assessments, led by social workers,” a spokesperson for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said.

This is echoed by a 2019 Guardian report which found that instances of the Home Office labelling child asylum seekers as adults had led to abuse with evidence of children being attacked, abandoned and neglected.

“It seems that what the Home Office describes as ‘scientific’ methods are no more accurate than the current method of assessing age - and will only cause unnecessary stress and added trauma for children seeking asylum, who may have already been through incredibly difficult circumstances in their life so far. Forcing them to undergo medical examinations – which can involve exposure to radiation through an x-ray and measuring body parts - is unethical and inhumane,” the BASW spokesperson continued.

They added they are also ‘deeply concerned’ that credibility of a young person’s asylum claim can be damaged if they refuse to consent to such examinations.

“A young person in such circumstances may have severe negative experiences when it comes to doctors, they may have experienced physical or sexual assault, or simply do not understand what is being done to them. Diminished credibility because of refusal to consent to these examinations is grotesque and not how we should be treating children and young people.”

The Home Office says the reforms will bring the UK’s age checking policy in line with other European countries which use scientific methods such as X-ray scans, and sometimes CT scans and MRI imaging to view key parts of the body. While it is true that many EU countries use these methods, a 2013 report by the European Asylum Support Office found that there was "no method which could identify the exact age of the individual".

In March this year, the Home Office published its New Plan for Immigration (NPI), a document outlining changes to process and legislation regarding refugees and migrants in the UK, including the establishment of a new National Age Assessment Board (NAAB).

The new immigration plans were accompanied by an engagement and consultation process that ran for 6 weeks, with many social workers and campaigners criticising the “serious ramifications” of the proposals.

The Home Secretary has promised more resources and support to local councils to ensure that they are able to apply the tests, but campaigners have criticised the feasibility and accuracy of the plans.

The Home Office initially attempted to introduce X-rays as part of age assessments in 2006, but met fierce criticism from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health which raised concerns that the procedures are inappropriate for determining age, and were accurate only to within plus or minus two years. Critics also cautioned that medical assessments can be ‘traumatic and invasive’ for children who have experienced persecution, and warned that there may be issues around the use of a medical procedure for non-medical purposes and a lack of informed consent.

Professor Dame Sue Black, President of the Royal Anthropological Institute, has been appointed to chair the Home Office’s new committee on an interim basis to oversee the plans, but the Home Office says a permanent appointment will be made in due course. The committee will comprise a range of expertise, including medical practitioners, academics, scientists and social workers.

Dame Sue Black said: “I am pleased to have been asked to Chair this committee and look forward to the opportunity to provide advice to the Home Office Chief Scientific Adviser on the important issue of scientific assessment of age.”

The committee will be looking at a range of scientific methods for estimating age, and will be considering their accuracy and reliability, as well as ethical and medical issues. They will report their findings directly to the Home Office Chief Scientific Adviser to support her in advising Ministers on appropriate scientific methods for age estimation.

The Government says it wants to centralise the process by establishing a National Age Assessment Board with expert social workers, working within the Home Office, who can conduct an age assessment on behalf of a local authority.

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