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New report: the Home Office continues to fail to protect children seeking asylum
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Refugee Council, Humans for Rights Network and Helen Bamber Foundation have published a new report ‘Forced Adulthood: The Home Office’s incorrect determination of age and how this leaves child refugees at risk’ looking at the harm caused to children by Home Office failures. The report contains a large number of quotes from children in the asylum system who have been directly affected by the Home Office’s errors. All of those quotes should be read not only by those who work at the Home Office but also by every parliamentarian involved in the recent approval of the use of scientific tests on children.
Through Freedom of Information data (as the Home Office does not publish these statistics), the report found that between January 2022 and June 2023 over 1,300 children were wrongly assessed as adults by the Home Office (see here for our explainer of the age assessment process). During the same period there were 832 safeguarding episodes, including where a child was assaulted with a knife and a sexual assault. Children have been prosecuted as adults for illegal entry to the UK and there have been 14 incidents of children spending time in custody in adult prisons.
Once the children have been moved into adult asylum accommodation, it becomes even more difficult to resolve the wrongful age assessment as staff are discouraged from referring potential children to local authorities for age assessments. The report refers to the ‘AASC/AIRE Provider Age Assessment Standard Operating Procedure’. This tells accommodation providers that where the Home Office has already carried out an age assessment, the providers should only refer the child to a local authority if the person is “childlike, is highly vulnerable and/or not behaving like an adult”.
Where the child does manage to get outside help, usually from an NGO or charity, and is referred to a local authority, the Home Office “frequently refuses” to accept their decision unless a full age assessment is carried out. Litigation is often necessary, but as we are all aware, legal aid lawyers are difficult to find (reminder that we have a very useful article on challenging negative age assessment decisions).
The report also highlights the damage caused by the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the Illegal Migration Act 2023 (if the provisions relating to the duty to remove were brought into force). The Illegal Migration Act 2023 would mean that children who are wrongly assessed as adults by the Home Office could then be removed from the UK without having ever encountered a social worker or having the chance to challenge the decision. When these concerns were raised, the government’s response was simply that age assessment challenges “can continue from outside the UK after they have been removed”
The report concludes with the following recommendations:
For the Home Office
Limit age determinations to those with relevant training and only treat someone claiming to be a child as an adult in exceptional circumstances, i.e. if there is evidence that they are in their late 20s or older.
Publish separate statistics on the number of people claiming to be children whom border officials have determined to be adults on the basis that their ‘physical appearance and demeanour very strongly suggested that they were significantly over 18 years of age’ and put in place monitoring processes so it can track the outcomes for those who are later determined to be children. The monitoring process should be set out independently of the Home Office to ensure oversight of age assessments at the port of entry.
Where a person has claimed to be a child but is being treated as an adult by the Home Office and is to be moved to adult accommodation/detention, the Home Office should notify the relevant local authority so that they are aware that there is a putative child in their area. Where a person in adult accommodation or detention claims to be a child but is being treated as an adult by the Home Office, the Home Office (or its contractors) should make a referral to the relevant local authority, irrespective of the Home Office’s decisions, so that they are aware that there is a putative child in their area and can assess accordingly. A referral should also be made to a legal representative.
For the government
Abandon the implementation of provisions in the Illegal Migration Act that would: leave children at risk of being removed from the UK even if they are challenging a decision on their age; make legal challenges harder to bring; or allow for children to automatically be treated as adults simply for refusing to consent to scientific procedures as part of their age assessment.
Establish an independent body to regularly analyse and oversee the numbers and quality of ‘age determinations’ made by the Home Office at the border.