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No method of assessment can predict age with precision, report says

A report for the Home Office on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children recommends biological procedures for assessing age in asylum-seeking children – but emphasises that no process is definite.


No method of assessment can predict age with precision, report says

The report, from the Interim Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee, says that, ‘There is no method, biological or social worker-led, that can predict age with precision. Therefore, biological assessment of age should consider whether the age claimed by the child is ‘possible’ rather than be used to answer the specific question of how old that person is or whether they are under or over 18 years of age.’

The report says that ‘[many] unaccompanied without documentation are obviously children even if they incorrectly present as adults, and some are very clearly adults claiming to be children, and these cases are handled by either Immigration Officers at the point of entry or social workers once the individual is placed with a local authority. However, in some cases there remains doubt over whether they are an adult or a child (or they are thought to be a child, but potentially a different age than claimed)…Until an age assessment can be performed, the person is treated as a child and a swift resolution is imperative as there are important safeguarding issues to be addressed.’

Currently, where a council doubts the stated age of someone seeking asylum who says they are a child, social workers assess the person using the Merton process. This is a legal standard established in 2022 in a case involving Merton Council, which disputed the claim of a person who said he was 17 years old.

Under the Merton rules, two social workers must carry out each age assessment for the local authority concerned. Typically, this involves a series of interviews. The local authority may also look at other information, including views from a foster carer, teacher, psychologist, police officer, paediatrician or other relevant practitioners. The process can take weeks or months, depending on resources, availability of interviewers and interpreters, and the co-operation of the age-disputed person.

The report points out that ‘There is no uniform approach to a “social-worker-led” age assessment, however the courts have provided guidance and minimum standards that must be applied. Much of the guidance was set out and so the assessments are commonly referred to as being “Merton-compliant”.

‘Following a Merton-compliant age assessment and review of all relevant and available information, a “minded to” meeting is held with the young person in which the social workers explain the age they are “minded to” assign to the young person, who is given the opportunity to provide further evidence to challenge the assigned age if they so wish. If the claimed age is accepted the young person is given a specific date of birth, based on their given day and month of birth if known or 1 January if not, and a year of birth to match the claimed age.

‘The current process for age assessment for UASC, where a local authority doubts the age claimed, has relied almost exclusively on the expertise and subjective opinions of social workers following the Merton-compliant process.

The report says that there are four issues in using this approach: ‘[The Merton process ] has not been baseline tested to evidence either for accuracy or repeatability and the process is not uniformly applied.’

‘[It] can be lengthy and stressful for the claimant, and places a significant resource burden on local authorities.

‘Many ‘age assessments are challenged, resulting in significant impact on local authorities’ time and resources and causing a delay in processing, and

‘Incorrect decisions have been made, sometimes with catastrophic consequences, when vulnerable children are inadvertently placed at risk of harm either from adults who are incorrectly assessed as children or when children are incorrectly placed into adult facilities.’

The committee advises that additionally, four medical procedures be used:
 Radiography (x-ray) of the third molar (wisdom teeth)
 Radiography (x-ray) of the bones of the hand and wrist
 Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the knee bones
 MRI of the clavicle (collar bone)

It acknowledges that, ‘There are strong views on the use of ionising radiation in the age assessment process and the interim committee has listened to and debated these arguments at length. However, the risk is recognised to be small and the benefits of a reliable age assessment are considerable for the ongoing health and wellbeing of the individual while minimising safeguarding risks.

It adds, ‘there is a growing body of peer reviewed research that provides confidence in the future use of MRI for assessment of the hand/wrist and third molar, although this will require further research.’

Since January 2022, more than 500 children and young people have sought asylum in the UK, requesting access to, and protection within, the children’s social care system. The vast majority are male, and aged 16-17 on arrival. According to the Refugee Council, the countries of origin are most likely to be Vietnam, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

Commenting on the report, Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said: ‘We welcome the interim committee’s confirmation that scientific age assessments are not a stand-alone solution, that they are not risk-free, and that they should be used with extreme caution alongside other methods rather than on their own. The interim committee has correctly recognised that children may have many reasons not to give their consent for biological age assessments that are not linked to the concealment of their age. This finding mirrors the experience we have at the Refugee Council when we support children who are age-disputed.

‘These children simply want to start rebuilding their lives after the traumatic experiences they went through. They put their trust in us hoping they will get the support they need — it’s vital that they are safeguarded and provided the care that they need as they go through the system. The government must not ignore the committee’s findings.’

Biological evaluation methods to assist in assessing the age of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (accessible)

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