Hundreds of child asylum seekers are at risk of abuse and neglect due to the Home Office wrongly classifying them as adults, according to two new reports.
Reports from the Refugee Council and Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU), published on Friday, highlight concerns about the way the Home Office is treating young people upon arriving in the UK.
The Home Office does not publish comprehensive data about all stages of the age assessment process for young asylum seekers. The two new reports have been compiled from a mix of freedom of information (FoI) requests to local authorities and their own casework files.
According to freedom of information data gathered from 64 local authorities by human rights charity the Helen Bamber Foundation, at least 450 young people who were age disputed by the Home Office in 2021 were referred to local authorities for assessment. Three-quarters of them were found to be children.
In the first three months of this year, 211 young asylum seekers were referred to council children’s services after initially having been placed in adult accommodation by the Home Office – two-thirds of them were found to be children. A total of 150 of them were initially placed either in detention centres or in adult accommodation.
The Refugee Council has run an Age Disputes Project since 2010. Last year, the it worked with 233 young people whom the Home Office determined to “certainly” be adults. But, after age assessments, 94% were found to be children.
The data the government does publish on age assessments can be open to misinterpretation. The organisation Full Fact found some media outlets had incorrectly stated that two-thirds of asylum seekers arriving in the UK between January 2018 and March 2022 who claimed to be children were actually adults. In fact, it showed roughly 20% were in fact adults.
The government rules around age assessment have changed. Previously, young people who looked “significantly over 25” were classed as adults by Home Office officials. Now these officials can assess young people as adults if they look “significantly over 18”. The Home Office has set up a new National Age Assessment Board with its own social workers carrying out age assessments.
In one case, a 16-year-old was wrongly assessed to be 28 by the Home Office. In another, a 17-year-old was assessed as being six years older than he was. Human rights campaigners are fearful that children wrongly age assessed as adults could be forcibly removed to Rwanda by the Home Office.
The Refugee Council has called for the Home Office to publish full data on age assessments for young asylum seekers and for independent oversight of the process from an Ofsted-style body.
GMIAU has called for an investigation into why so many children have been wrongly assessed as adults, and for the introduction of independent legal guardians to guide young asylum seekers through the age assessment and asylum process.
Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “Every day refugee children are at risk of abuse and neglect because hasty, woeful decision-making routinely mistakes them for adults. We urge the government to immediately take heed of our recommendations and do better by vulnerable children it has a duty to protect.”
The GMIAU report states: “We call for a drastic change in Home Office culture and decision-making as well as safeguards to ensure children are protected from harm.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Age assessments are challenging but vital. Children are at risk when asylum-seeking adults claim to be children, or children are wrongly treated as adults. Our reforms through the Nationality and Borders Act aim to make assessments more consistent and robust by using scientific measures, and creating a new national age assessment board. If there is doubt whether a claimant is an adult or child, they will be referred for a local authority assessment and will be treated as a child until a decision on their age is made.”