Concerns are mounting that children wrongly assessed as adults by the Home Office could end up being offshored to Rwanda.
The Guardian understands that three age-disputed children who the Home Office declared to be adults and detained in preparation for offshoring to Rwanda have now been released. It is understood that concerns have been raised about whether at least three more detainees threatened with removal to the east African country are children rather than adults.
A letter signed by members of the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium including the Children’s Society, Refugee Council and ECPAT is being sent to the home secretary, Priti Patel.
It states: “We are gravely concerned that unaccompanied children – who have been incorrectly age-assessed to be adults – will be removed to Rwanda with hugely damaging repercussions on their safety and wellbeing.”
It adds: “Currently, there are no safeguards in place for children who say they are children but are treated as adults by the Home Office.”
Consortium members said they regularly see the Home Office treating children as young as 14 as adults. Data from 55 local authorities gathered from freedom of information responses obtained by the Helen Bamber Foundation shows that in 2021, more than 450 young people were referred to children’s services after being sent to adult accommodation or detention. Three-quarters were found to be children. Initial data relating to 2022 indicates this problem continues.
Young people newly arrived in the UK are often unaware of initial age decisions made by immigration officials. The letter states that young people are often given little support and will not know to challenge an incorrect assessment nor always appreciate the ramifications of such a decision.
“Under the government’s Rwanda policy, those children incorrectly assessed to be adults now face the potentially extreme consequences of being removed to a country 4,000 miles away with no further means of redress. Putting children at such risk is a clear violation of the secretary of state’s duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. We call on you to ensure that the Home Office puts its duties towards the rights and protections of children above immigration control,” it adds.
Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said: “The cruel and nasty Rwanda deal fails to see the face behind the case and treats vulnerable people with contempt. We have already had to directly intervene to stop children who were incorrectly assessed as adults from being deported to Rwanda.
“We are very concerned that this will be the fate of many more young people currently being held in detention. We know from our work directly with young people this is having [an effect] on their anxiety and mental health, with distressing reports of self-harming. We need an orderly, humane and fair asylum system that treats children as children and gives them the support they need, not treating them as human cargo to be sent to Rwanda.”
Benny Hunter, project coordinator of the Da’aro Youth project, which supports young refugees from the Horn of Africa, said: “We are deeply disturbed by news of unaccompanied children being detained and threatened with deportation to Rwanda. Young people who arrive in the UK separated from their families are seriously vulnerable. It is unacceptable that instead of kindness and care they are experiencing disbelief, imprisonment and threats of removal.”
Azmina Siddique, policy and impact manager at the Children’s Society, said: “We are really worried that children might be wrongly age-assessed and sent to Rwanda. The Children’s Society has worked to support young refugees and asylum seekers for many years and know if a child is age-assessed as an adult it deeply affects their mental health and can put them in greater danger.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our world-leading partnership with Rwanda is a key part of our strategy to overhaul the broken asylum system. We have been clear from the start that we expected legal challenges; however, we are determined to deliver this new partnership. We have now issued formal directions to the first group of people due to be relocated to Rwanda later this month. This marks a critical step towards operationalising the policy, which fully complies with international and national law.”