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New scientific committee will advise Home Office on ways of conducting age assessments on asylum seekers


Home Secretary wants more vigorous and robust age assessments to prevent abuse

Date of Publication:
06 January 2022

New scientific committee will advise Home Office on ways of conducting age assessments on asylum seekers

06 January 2022

The Home Office yesterday announced the formation of a new Scientific Advisory Committee to provide advice on ways of carrying out age assessments on asylum seekers.

Report coverThe committee will be chaired by Professor Dame Sue Black and will bring together experts such as medical practitioners, academics, scientists and social workers. It will report to Professor Jennifer Rubin, the Home Office Chief Scientific Adviser, to support her in advising the Government on appropriate scientific methods for age estimation.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the committee's advice would help ensure more vigorous and robust assessments are carried out to prevent adult asylum seekers posing as children.

Patel said: "The practice of single grown adult men, masquerading as children claiming asylum is an appalling abuse of our system which we will end. 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."

The Home Office's announcement comes in the wake of a number of media stories last week about the number of asylum seekers who pose as children. For example, The Times reported that official figures showed that over 1,000 asylum seekers falsely claimed to be children in 2021.

Yesterday's Home Office press release noted: "In the 12 months up to September 2021, of the 1,696 resolved age dispute cases in which an individual's claim to be a child is disputed, around two thirds were found to be adults."

According to the Home Office, the UK intends to use scientific methods such as X-ray scans, CT scans and MRI imaging, which will bring the UK's age checking policy in line with a number of other European countries. Finland, Norway, France and Greece were mentioned.

The Refugee and Migrant Children's Consortium (RMCC), a coalition of over 60 organisations, said in November 2021 that it opposed the Government's plans for 'regressive' new methods of age assessing young asylum seekers.

Clauses of the amended Nationality and Borders Bill will bring major changes to the way in which age assessments are carried out.

RMCC warned: "These last-minute clauses radically change the system by which children's ages are assessed. The Bill would take power away from local authorities and the social workers caring for child asylum seekers, and would give the Home Office power to force social workers to conduct age assessments as a matter of routine, whether or not a social worker has reason to disbelieve a child."

RMCC added: "The new clauses also include potentially harmful 'scientific' methods of assessing age. The Home Secretary appeared to abandon plans to x-ray children's teeth in October after a backlash by dentists, but now plans to legislate for other means including 'examining or measuring parts of a person's body' and the analysis of saliva, cell or other samples and the DNA within them. The use of scientific methods to assess age has long been generally accepted as lacking accuracy and being unethical and of limited use in working out someone's age."

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) set out similar concerns in an October 2021 statement.

BASW stated: "New Clause 32 refers to 'scientific methods' to determine age. We are clear that there is no known scientific method that can precisely determine age, and that the preferred way is through a multi-agency approach. 'Scientific methods' are hugely controversial and can be very invasive and traumatic for the individual. We are opposed to the use of the term 'scientific methods' as a panacea for age assessments, and as a safeguard, we are calling for the requirement of the relevant professional body to approve the use of a 'scientific method' as a valid way to determine age assessment before it is used. We also do not agree that the Secretary of State should be able to determine appropriate 'scientific methods', and fear that this could result in methods around sexual maturity or other invasive, traumatic procedures."

BASW said the Nationality and Borders Bill fails to recognise that it is impossible to determine age precisely.

The British Medical Association (BMA) warned in October that any use of ionising radiation as part of the Government's proposed 'scientific methods' for age verification would raise serious ethical concerns.

In a short briefing on the Nationality and Borders Bill, the BMA said: "The use of radiation for this purpose involves direct harms without any medical benefit to the individual. Furthermore, the evidence supporting the accuracy of the process is extremely weak, particularly where, as in the case of most asylum seekers, there is a shortage of appropriate age and cultural comparators. Age assessments can clearly have serious consequences for the individuals assessed. It is critical therefore that any method used to make such assessments has a strong scientific and evidentiary base."

Further information on concerns with age assessments can be found in the RMCC's June 2021 briefing and its November 2021 briefing.

While Home Office statistics show a majority of age dispute cases result in the asylum seeker being assessed as an adult over the age of 18, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted in May 2021 that the vast majority of asylum seekers who present as children are believed.

In its observation on the Government's New Plan for Immigration policy, UNHCR noted: "[T]he Plan presents statistics that suggest that just over half of children subjected to an age assessment over the last five years were assessed as adults. However, this figure only includes cases where an individual's age was in doubt. The vast majority – around 90% of asylum-seekers who present as children - are in fact believed by the Government to be children."