UK government proposals looking to reform age assessments are being criticised for putting asylum-seeking young people and children at risk of being mistakenly judged as adults. Through the plans, the Home Office are showing a clear lack of support for young people and a priority of upholding dangerous narratives surrounding the integrity of asylum claims.
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, they 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, as it states that medical methods are not frequently used due to larger margins for error.
The current 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.
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. However, this framing ignores the other side of the debate, in which there have been many cases in which unaccompanied children have been wrongly deemed as adults. It also ignores reasons as to why adult asylum seekers feel the need to do this, as child claimants get access to more support and accommodation, whilst adults are often placed in detention centres with no access to public funds.
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 that exist if adults are wrongly deemed to be children and are then placed in settings with them. However, they place themselves in a precarious position with such justification. This is because this view completely ignores the existence of the safeguarding risks attached to mistakenly deeming a child to be an adult. Placing children in adult accommodation has been found to create situations in which they are bullied and abused by adults which then impacts on their quality of life and ability to cope with independent life.
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. However, it appears as though that the Home Office is too concerned with the over-publicised myth of an adult being placed in a school than it is ensuring that unaccompanied children deemed as adults are not placed in dangerous and vulnerable situations.
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.