by Aaron Gates-Lincoln, Political Advisor and Writer at ImmiNews

New government proposals to reform age assessments are putting asylum-seeking children at serious risk of mistakenly being deemed to be adults. The plans would allow more invasive tests to be undertaken on children arriving in this country, and could result in many of them being exposed to safeguarding risks and become victims of the hostile environment created by the Home Office.

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. ‘Scientific methods’ have been condemned in the past for being outdated, inaccurate and too invasive. This is mirrored in current Home Office guidance surrounding assessments, as it states that medical methods are not frequently used due to larger margins for error. This showcases the contradictory nature of now introducing them, when it is clear that the Home Office knows of the risks they pose.

Currently, the 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. The make-up of and involvement of the social work sector in the board is currently unclear, but there is no reason to believe at the moment that it will be excluded.

The introduction of these new plans exacerbates already existing narratives that depict adult asylum seekers posing as children as a common and threatening occurrence. These narratives exist because in some instances, adult asylum seekers pose as children, in order to receive better support and avoid detention centres. However, the issue that arises in the Home Office’s proposals is that they play into this narrative too heavily, and ignore the opposite argument of the risks posed to children that are wrongly deemed as adults.

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. Meanwhile, 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. This showcases that both sides of the argument are valid and are potential risks, but the Home Office chooses to focus solely on adults posing as children, a narrative that is damning of asylum seekers.

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. They also highlight that they currently send £46,000 a year to Local Authorities for each unaccompanied asylum-seeking child. They state that if adults are wrongly deemed as children, this money could have been used to provide resources for other children.

However, the Home Office places itself in a precarious position with such justification. Although they are stating that these new measures would be used to improve safeguarding surrounding adults deemed as children, they choose to ignore the safeguarding risks that age assessments create for children wrongly deemed as adults. There are multiple safeguarding risks for children wrongly deemed to be adults, as they are placed in adult accommodation which 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 the Home Office 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 if that the Home Office is too concerned with the over-publicised myth of an adult being placed in a school than it is with ensuring that unaccompanied children wrongly 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 properly considered.