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Child Refugees: Age Checks

Volume 615: debated on Friday 21 October 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Immigration if he will make a statement on what age checks are being carried out on child refugees to ensure they are children.

I thank my hon. Friend for tabling this urgent question, which enables us to put the Government’s position on the record.

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we work closely with the French authorities to ensure that the cases applying to come to the UK qualify under Dublin, including in terms of conducting an age assessment where necessary. All individuals are referred to the UK authorities by France terre d’asile—the FTDA, which is a non-governmental organisation—and are then interviewed by French and UK officials. Where credible and clear documentary evidence of age is not available—the pace at which these children have fled situations of war and persecution means that many do not have any definitive documentary evidence—then we will use criteria, including physical appearance and demeanour, to assess age as part of the interview process.

My officials are working in difficult circumstances in Calais to ensure that vulnerable children are safeguarded. There has been significant media coverage over the last week questioning the appearance of those admitted to the UK. I think we would all agree that teenagers’ appearances vary widely, and my officials and all the agencies working in these difficult circumstances have the safety and welfare of the young people in mind.

This week has also reopened the old debate about the value of dental X-rays and medical tests to determine an individual’s age. A significant number of experts have spoken out against such checks. The British Dental Association has described them as “inaccurate, inappropriate and unethical”. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has said that the margin of error can sometimes be as much as five years either side with medical tests and Doctors of the World UK has called the idea “unethical and unnecessary”. That is why the Home Office does not use dental X-rays to confirm the ages of those seeking asylum in the UK. The House should also note that, legally, we cannot force anyone to undergo such a check. That is why officials are trained to assess age. I want to be clear that where we believe someone is clearly over 18, they will be refused. Indeed, the information I have today suggests that around 10% of cases referred to us on this basis are being refused in France.

We have made significant progress to bring to the UK those children with family members. We are absolutely determined to get those children here, but I would call on all Members of the House, the media and the public to respect the privacy of these vulnerable young people.

I am grateful to the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration, for that statement.

Surely it cannot be necessary to explain why it is important that child refugees are actually children. We agreed to take in child refugees, so surely it is not too much to ask that the Government ensure that they are children. But clearly this is not the case: people only have to see the pictures of the so-called child refugees to see that many of them are not children. The Home Office has admitted that two thirds of people claiming to be child refugees are shown to be not children. Even the charities have had to accept this, trying to explain that people who are clearly older were translators, only to be told that they were not translators at all, but were claiming to be child refugees. A large number of my constituents have contacted me to say how angry they are that we are being taken for fools and taken for a ride, and that our generosity is being abused. Does the Minister not understand that unless a grip is taken on this, it will do irreparable damage to public confidence in the asylum system?

The Minister has said that carrying out dental checks would be not only unethical but unreliable. However, the Government’s own website, in the UK Visas and Immigration section on “Assessing age”, under “Dental age assessments or x-ray reports”, says:

“In some instances, applicants will submit reports from dental consultants based on a detailed assessment of dental development. The margin of error in determining age through this process is approximately plus or minus 2 years”,

and prays in aid the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. It continues:

“This means there will be cases where such reports should be given considerable weight—for example because the applicant’s claimed age is within the possible range.”

The Home Office is already saying on its website that dental checks should be given considerable weight. How on earth can they be unreliable and unethical in this case, when they are being touted on the Government’s website as sensible? What checks are being made by the Government?

Finally, if somebody claims to be 14, do we just accept it and send them to a local school, with all the obvious safeguarding issues that would be involved if they were adults? The Government owe the British public and genuine child refugees a promise to get a grip on this situation.

My hon. Friend needs to be aware that both the Dublin regulation and section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016—the so-called Dubs amendment—define children as those under the age of 18. Indeed, a large number of those in the camps are both male and 16 or 17-year-olds, and we have never tried to mislead anyone about that particular fact.

The criterion being used at this stage for the Dublin children is family connections in the UK. Those children are our priority and they are the ones we have seen being brought across this week. Further children will be brought across, and some of that initial assessment will enable further work to be done, including fingerprinting. If there are cases where, for example, the person concerned has been brought to the attention of a European immigration authority or has applied for a visa somewhere in the world to come to the UK, we will be able to have further information, so that work is being done.

The age issue can arise because of Home Office concerns about the claimed age or because the individual does not accept the initial assessment process. Where there is doubt, the individual will be referred to a local authority children’s services department for a careful, case-law compliant age assessment and will be treated as a child while the outcome is awaited. Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that they safeguard and promote the welfare of children under section 11 of the Children Act 2004, regardless of their immigration status or nationality. This safeguards the individual who is required to undergo an age assessment and safeguards children already in the care population from the presence of an adult being placed in the same living accommodation.

I want to start by welcoming all refugees who have entered Britain in the last few days to their new home. I hope that our country will provide them with a safe space that enables them to put behind them the traumas and difficulties they have faced. Welcome to Britain.

The Government committed to taking unaccompanied child refugees in May. The Home Office have therefore had five months to assess the age of the young people—five months in which refugees have had to live their lives in limbo and in conditions that none of us would like to live in, and certainly not to have our children live in. I am sure the Minister can assure the House that this delay is a result of the Home Office carefully assessing the age of the young people we are granting sanctuary to.

Europol has warned that at least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have gone missing since entering Europe after fleeing the most terrible political situation in Syria and elsewhere in north Africa and the middle east. Citizens UK thinks there are at least 54 unaccompanied girls, mainly Eritreans, in the Calais camp, and they are eligible to enter under the Dubs amendment. These are children who have had their homes, their parents and their entire lives taken away from them and they are in real danger. Does the Minister agree that our resolve to give sanctuary and protection to unaccompanied child refugees must remain undiminished? We cannot succumb to compassion fatigue.

I know that some Conservative Members have called for dental checks to determine the age of children coming over, but the Journal of Forensic Sciences found that when it comes to determining if someone is aged between 17 and 19 years old, dental checks are wrong up to 50% of the time. The British Dental Association, whose members would presumably have to carry out the mooted checks, has said that they would be “inappropriate and unethical”. Does the Minister agree that calling for dental checks is an unworkable red herring?

I am pleased that the Government are committed to helping unaccompanied child refugees, and 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. However, given the scale of the refugee crisis, we can and should do more. There will be challenges along the way and things will not go perfectly, but helping people in dire need—and they are—is the right thing to do. When we meet bumps in the road people in this place, and in other positions of power, we should keep a calm head and continue to offer a welcoming embrace to those who are fleeing the most desperate circumstances.

The points made by the hon. Lady encapsulate the vast majority of the United Kingdom’s view of the compassion that we should show and our legal responsibility to step up to the mark to ensure that vulnerable children in those camps are looked after as well as possible. It is in the joint interests of both the United Kingdom and the French Republic that the camp is removed, and, more importantly, that is in the interests of the people in that camp. I must make it clear that nobody needs to be in that camp. The French have facilities for people who ask to leave the camp and large numbers have already left it.

I have already covered the point on dental checks. One additional point, which I think some of the media have failed to grasp, is that there are two distinct categories of children. First, there are the Dublin III children, who qualify because they have family here in the United Kingdom, and those are the children whom we prioritise to move before the camps are cleared. Secondly, there are the children who qualify under the Dubs amendment. The criterion in that case is where their needs will best be served. I can assure the House that we will prioritise the most vulnerable in that group—the under-13s and those who are vulnerable for other reasons—to ensure that that can happen. They cannot be processed as quickly. We need to remove them to a place of safety as the clearance starts and then ensure that we can fully live up to the commitments that this Government made when they accepted the Dubs amendment.

My constituents are very worried about migrant children. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Home Office is working closely with NGOs and the local authorities in France to identify and resettle children who are in Calais?

The role of NGOs is vital because many of those in the camps may not view people in uniform or in authority in the same way as we do. Charities such as the British Red Cross, which has been helping to bring children across, and Barnardo’s, which is stepping up to the mark by providing some short-term accommodation before the children are moved on, are playing a vital role. We appreciate the efforts that NGOs are making, working in conjunction with the UK and French authorities to ensure that we discharge our obligations.

The Home Office is to be commended for finally moving to process children from the Calais camps covered by our legal obligations under both the Dublin convention and the Dubs amendment, which the Minister has mentioned. I am very grateful to the Home Secretary for giving me a full update on what is happening earlier this week, and I am very proud that many of the children coming from Calais will be welcomed in Scotland. I can assure the House that they will be most welcome there.

An update in due course on the numbers being processed would be appreciated. Can the Minister confirm that that will be made available? I have been to the camps at Calais and I have witnessed how vulnerable children are living in inhumane conditions. To impose invasive treatment now, when we are finally helping them, would be a dereliction of the UK Government’s moral duty towards them. I am happy to hear from the Minister that the Government are listening to the expert advice and not giving in to the sort of unpleasant pressure that he is receiving from some on his Back Benches.

The children at Calais have come from some of the most difficult and unsafe parts of the world. In some respects the instability from which they have fled has been caused by failed British foreign policy. Some of them have indeed grown older in the camp while waiting to be processed, and that should not be held against them. As the Minister said, the definition of a child is “a person under the age of 18”, and anyone who is familiar with children will know that a young man in his teens under the age of 18 separated from his parents is a vulnerable person.

I very much regret that this question, some of the stuff that we have seen in the tabloids and some of the behaviour of some members of the audience on “Question Time” last night are symptomatic of the xenophobia that has arisen in this country since the referendum. Today we are all united in our condemnation of homophobia. What are the Government doing to quell the rising tide of xenophobia in this country? What will the Minister do to challenge false information in the press and to calm any doubts about how the children will be treated when they arrive here?

As I said, we would expect the age profile of children arriving in the UK under Dublin III —those with family in the UK—to reflect the overall age profile in the camp, which is mainly older children. Under Dubs, we are encouraging the most vulnerable to come forward, and those will be the younger children.

Let me provide an update on the progress that we have made under the Dublin regulation. Since the beginning of the year, over 140 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have come from Europe and have been accepted for transfer to the UK under the family reunion provisions, of whom 80 are from France. That compares with 20 in the whole of last year.

I join the hon. and learned Lady in condemning any xenophobia. That is not in the English or the Scottish psyche or that of any other part of this country. The small minority who may hold such attitudes and whose attitudes are sometimes translated into actions are to be condemned right across the House.

What specific actions are being taken by the UK and French security forces to stop criminal gangs from exploiting vulnerable people, particularly children, in Calais?

It is a matter of great concern that criminal gangs, particularly people traffickers, are in the camps. The best way to curtail the actions of those criminal gangs is to dismantle the camp and disperse the people around the country, where they are less able to be targeted. I am pleased that the Home Office, working with our French counterparts, has succeeded in making a number of arrests where people trafficking is going on, and we will continue to keep up the pressure.

My constituent, Norman Vetter, sent me an extract this morning from the British Medical Journal, which states:

“Medical estimation of age is still inaccurate and the results are unreliable.”

It goes on to say:

“Age estimations have standard deviations of more than 12 months and are limited by intraindividual discrepancies, racial differences, and poor inter-rater reliability”,

and concludes:

“Ethically, it is hard to justify treating someone as an adult based on such unreliable data.”

Does the Minister agree?

The hon. Gentleman is right. All the august medical and dental bodies that I quoted made it clear that medical or dental evidence cannot be used as a way of determining age. My own wisdom teeth did not come down until quite late in life. In many cases, those young people have not enjoyed the same nutrition as we have, so their stage of growth may vary. I underline the fact that all the evidence indicates that we cannot use medical or dental data. If the determination of age is necessary, there is the Merton process, which requires referral by two social workers and takes about 28 days. That method is used by social services throughout the country where an accurate determination of age is needed. That could not be done within the available time, even if we could do it on French territory.

I welcome the Minister’s comments so far. What will be in the public’s mind, though, is what they are seeing in the media, as opposed to what we are hearing today. What work will the Home Office do to reassure the public about those whom we are helping?

We have all seen the pictures from the camps and the terrible conditions that both young people and adults have to endure there. I know that the wish of the vast majority of the British people is to ensure that, if we have a legal responsibility under either the Dublin III regulation or the Dubs amendment, we should step up to the mark and ensure that those children are brought to a place of safety here in the UK. Working with our French colleagues, that is what we intend to do.

I, too, welcome the Minister’s comments in response to a question that shows not only a lack of compassion, but a fundamental lack of understanding of the fact that these young people have had to grow up beyond their years because they are children who have been robbed of their childhood and have to fend for themselves. Does the Minister agree, and will he do everything possible with his Department to ensure that these children and young people do not grow old waiting to be processed?

Previously, the Dublin process did take some weeks, but given the timescale of the projected clearance, it is important that we have accelerated that process to make sure that those children can be processed. I am pleased that we are doing that. I pay tribute to our Home Office staff, who have been over there in difficult conditions to deliver on that promise.

Will the Minister please explain the process through which the Government work with the Italian, French and Greek Governments, as well as with non-governmental organisations, to identify child refugees and speed up the process of bringing in child refugees when that is in their best interests?

The Dublin process is relatively simple: it requires the child concerned to apply for asylum in the country they are in and then to apply for transfer under the Dublin process. These are not just children with families in the UK; it applies to all European Union countries and a number of transfers have taken place.

The media circus over the past few days has been not only distasteful, but downright dangerous. The media exposure will serve to fan further the flames of intolerance, which is massively irresponsible at a time of rising hate crime in England. What exactly is the Home Office doing to protect the identities of vulnerable refugees—in particular, child refugees?

There were certainly some pictures in the press of children with blankets over their heads, and that was specifically to protect their identities; as children, their identities need to be protected. I have confidence in the compassion of the British people and their wish to support us in what we are doing. A small minority in the media, or noises off, should not be listened to.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, his Department and all the work he is doing to help these most vulnerable children. Will he update the House on what assistance the Government have offered the French Government to clear the camp at Calais?

We are working very closely with the French Government, and where resources are needed we are ensuring that we can help wherever we can. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has met her opposite number on a number of occasions. We are working very closely with the French. It is in our common interests to ensure that the camp is cleared—not just because of the people there, but because of the pull factor that it has for people who may be thinking about making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

I welcome the measured approach that the Minister has taken in his response and seriously question the integrity of the hon. Member on the Back Benches who had the audacity to question the statistically—

Order. The hon. Lady should not question the hon. Gentleman’s integrity. We all have integrity in this House, and we are not going to change that. Minister, do you want to pick something out of that?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the information he has given the House this morning. When the child refugees are being admitted because they have family ties in the UK, are checks made with their families here if there are any doubts about their ages? Are the Government keeping a record of the ages of all the children being admitted, and will that be published?

We are certainly keeping records of the children. After the children arrive at Lunar House in Croydon for initial processing—“processing” is a terrible word, but the House knows what I mean: the initial welcome they get there—they will then be moved on to temporary holding facilities around the country before they are reunited with their families. All the necessary social services checks will be carried out on those families to ensure the safety of the children.

Can the Minister provide a bit more detail on exactly what the Government are doing to help protect vulnerable people and migrant children across Europe and the Balkans?

As the previous Prime Minister announced at this Dispatch Box, it is important that we should not be distracted by the events in Calais and elsewhere around Europe from the real need, which is in the refugee camps in the war zones and the countries around them. I am pleased that we are the second biggest donor, and we are working closely to ensure that people there get help. There is also, of course, the programme for bringing 20,000 people across from those areas. They are the most vulnerable. Those who can make the journey right across Europe are not necessarily the most vulnerable, and I believe that ours is the right policy.

Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that safeguarding checks are fully in place for the vulnerable children who arrive on our shores and that they will be protected and kept safe?

Absolutely. Home Office officials, working with local government social services officials, will be making sure that we discharge all our responsibilities to protect the children.

Many constituents in the Calder Valley have contacted me wanting to know why, given that we have said that we are going to take children from the jungle in Calais, we are actually taking young men and not young girls. Can the Minister confirm that the only unaccompanied children—that is, those under 18—in the Calais jungle are in fact young men?

Some 90% of those in the camps who are children are young men. It is important that, as we move to the next phase, we target the most vulnerable—the younger children and those at most risk.