Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

New Age Assessment Rules for Asylum Seeking Young People – Aaron Gates-Lincoln

New UK government proposals surrounding reforms to age assessments of asylum-seeking individuals are putting children at serious risk of mistakenly being deemed to be adults. Invasive tests will be performed on children arriving in the UK as part of the plans, and may result in many of them being exposed to safeguarding risks and becoming victims of the Home Office’s hostile environment policies.

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, the Home Office are also looking into introducing ‘scientific methods’ to help improve the accuracy of age assessments. However, this directly goes against current Home Office guidance surrounding assessments, which states that medical methods are not frequently used due to their larger margins for error. 

Currently, the policy states that individuals should be treated as an adult if their appearance and demeanour suggest they are ‘over 25 years of age’. New policy would change this to ‘significantly over 18 years of age’. 

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 the social work sector in the board is currently unclear. This is worrying, as the involvement of the social work sector ensures that there is always a representative body whose main aim is to ensure the best interests and safety of children. However, if their role were to decrease, age assessments could become more punitive and harsher, even towards children, in order to uphold the ‘hostile environment’ image that prevails in the UK currently.

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. Damaging narratives already exist which depict asylum-seeking individuals as being deceptive and untruthful . In reality, it is important to consider that in the few cases of adults posing as children when seeking asylum, this is because children are offered a wider range of support, accommodation and access to public funds than adults are. In addition to this, adults have a much greater risk of being placed in detention centres and those that do have access to adult accommodation are often subject to terrible living conditions,

There have also been many cases in which unaccompanied children have been wrongly 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 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 this justification. Although they are stating that these new measures would be used to improve safeguarding, they choose to ignore the safeguarding risks that age assessments create for children deemed as adults. If wrongly deemed as adults, children could be placed in adult accommodation, which has been found to create situations in which they are bullied and abused and can impact on their quality of life .  By deeming a child to be an adult, the UK government frees itself from many duties of protection and delivery of essential children’s rights. This results in many children being placed in vulnerable situations across all walks of life, whether it be financial stability, employment, education and healthcare.

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. They stated, “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.”

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. These children already have little access to immigration pathways of achieving indefinite leave to remain or citizenship, and these policies simply make life harder for them. It appears as so that the Home Office is deliberately forming and upholding dangerous narratives surrounding asylum seekers, to serve as a smokescreen for harsh and punitive immigration policies. The past decade has shown that such narratives are effective for electoral success, despite actual cases of falsely assessed adults being very low. It has become clear that the UK government are building policies such as these, to push these narratives further to ensure that the UK public side with them on their treatment of migrants, especially in times of scrutiny such as recently regarding the housing of migrants in barracks and detention centres in unsafe conditions.

It is imperative that pressure is applied to the government so that the policy changes are reviewed, and the consequences of the changes are considered.

Aaron Gates-Lincoln writes for Immigration News and Immigration Advice Service, media platforms that are trying to raise awareness of migrant injustices in the UK and around the world.