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Age-disputed Refugee Children

Volume 748: debated on Friday 19 April 2024

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Jenkinson.)

It is a privilege to have secured this Adjournment debate on age-disputed refugee children. I should declare at the outset that I am an officer of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees.

I know the Minister will agree that there are few issues more important than the safety of children, but the current system for dealing with age-disputed refugee children is letting many of them down, with their safety and wellbeing put at risk as a result. The Helen Bamber Foundation, the Humans for Rights Network and the Refugee Council have obtained data showing that over an 18-month period between January 2022 and June 2023, more than 1,300 children were wrongly assessed to be adults by the Home Office. Such incorrect assessments are usually the product of a short visual examination made by a border official almost immediately after the children arrive in the UK.

Incorrect assessments result in children being placed in adult accommodation and immigration detention, exposing them to significant safeguarding risks and denying them the support they need to rebuild a life that has already been distorted by trauma and hardship. Of specific concern are the cases of children being sent to Wethersfield or ending up in adult prisons. I will return to that point in greater detail later, but I will first explain why the current process for assessing the age of asylum seekers is problematic. Before I do so, I thank the Refugee Council for the information it has provided to me in advance of this debate. I also sincerely thank Omer, Motawakil and Amanual, three young refugees wrongly assessed as adults, who were kind enough to meet me earlier this afternoon to share their experiences and who are in the Gallery. I respectfully encourage the Minister to reach out to the Refugee Council to see whether it can facilitate a similar meeting for her, as I found my meeting both eye-opening and deeply moving.

Let me turn back to the issue of flawed assessment processes for children seeking asylum. The issue emerges from the fact that many children seeking asylum arrive here without a passport or birth certificate, often because they have never had such documentation or because it was taken from them during their journey to the UK. In other cases, they fled such trauma that they were unable to collect any of their documentation. I understand that if a young person arrives here without ID, it can be difficult to determine their age, and no system for doing so will be perfect, but charities also tell me of children arriving with ID, only to have it immediately set aside at the border.

As I understand it, the current model places the power to change a young asylum seeker’s life in the hands of a border official conducting an age assessment based, according to Home Office guidance, on a person’s “appearance and demeanour”. If said border official believes that the asylum seeker is the age they claim to be—and different border officials’ judgments will be hugely variable—they are placed into the care of the local authority, where further age assessments carried out by qualified social workers can take place if necessary, and where support networks are more readily available. If, however, the border official believes that a person’s appearance and demeanour very strongly suggest that they are significantly over 18, that person will face an age interview at a processing centre in Dover.

It is not just refugee charities that have raised concerns about this process. Even the Home Office’s own guidance makes it clear that physical appearance is a notoriously unreliable basis for assessment of chronological age, and that demeanour can also be notoriously unreliable. What is more, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration has described age assessments being undertaken at ports as “perfunctory”.

Beyond the visual assessment, I am aware that many refugees who have been through the process have raised concerns about the interviews that have been undertaken. Their experiences include not being provided with the correct interpreter, being called liars and facing inappropriate comments about their physical appearance. This is unacceptable, and the reason it is so worrying is that the stakes are so high. When children are incorrectly assessed as adults, they are placed into poorly supervised adult accommodation, hotels and detention centres. The safeguarding risks for such children are obvious: some are as young as 14, sharing living accommodation with unrelated adults. Tragically, there have been multiple cases of these children being sexually and physically assaulted. Other children have witnessed suicide or self-harm by the traumatised adults they are living with, who are in need of help themselves.

Even if they avoid that, children in such settings still miss out on access to the pastoral and educational support that they need to rebuild their lives. Many have reported being stuck in their hotel rooms for days on end, with little or no information on how to challenge their age assessment and no certainty about their future. The toll this takes on their mental health and wellbeing is huge. Of the safeguarding referrals made to the Refugee Council relating to potential children staying in adult accommodation, the highest reported risk is suicide. The second highest risk is that the children abscond and we lose all sight of them, not knowing whether they have become homeless, destitute or exploited by someone offering them accommodation elsewhere. This is not alarmist: it is happening.

I am afraid to say that the Government’s recent illegal migration legislation poses further risks—chief among them that children will be inadvertently sent to Rwanda. We know that last year, there were numerous cases of children who had been detained as adults being issued with notices of intent to remove them to Rwanda on flights that ultimately never took off. The Government recently rejected Baroness Lister’s amendment to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, which would have ensured that children who had been wrongly assessed as adults by the Home Office would not be removed to Rwanda while that decision was still being challenged. In light of that, I would be grateful if the Minister could provide assurances that appeal rights regarding age assessments will be granted, and I implore her to ensure that people appealing their decision will not be removed until that process has taken place. Those seem like reasonable steps to avoid traumatised children wrongly being sent halfway across the world.

As well as addressing this issue, I am sure that in her response the Minister will want to talk about some of the measures the Government have put in place to improve the age assessment process. I know that these include the recent authorisation of X-rays and MRI scans in what are being called scientific age assessments, and the establishment of a national age assessment board.

Will the Minister address the concerns of the Refugee Council that the national age assessment board will not work with people who have just arrived in the UK, and therefore will not impact initial age decisions? Can the Minister refer to any evidence showing that the use of X-rays or MRIs is more accurate than Merton-compliant age assessments carried out by qualified social workers, which are favoured by charities working in the refugee sector? Will the Minister explain what happens if an asylum seeker refuses an X-ray or MRI scan? There is an important principle that medical consent should not be sought from a person under duress. Given possible issues with the proposals put forward by the Government, will the Minister consider requests from the Refugee Council and others to limit the conduct of age assessments to fully qualified staff with relevant training?

On the safeguarding issues that I mentioned earlier, I hope the Minister will consider ensuring that the Home Office monitors what happens to people claiming to be children whom the Home Office has determined are adults, and establishing proper processes so that the Department can track the outcomes for those who are later found to be children. Even if the Minister chooses not to pursue those suggestions, I hope she will acknowledge that more needs to be done to improve the age assessment process for young asylum seekers.

I will end by reiterating what these children have been through. They have been driven away from their homes and the places they loved by violence and persecution, separated from family and friends, and forced to undertake an often perilous journey to the UK. Those children should not face new risks to their safety when they get here, and they should not be thrown into the terrifying limbo that is the adult asylum detention system. They should be greeted with fairness and decency when they reach these shores. I am sure the Minister would agree that those are fundamentally British values, so I look forward to hearing how the Government will uphold them when reforming age assessment processes for young asylum seekers.

I thank the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western) for securing this debate and for the sensitive way he presented these issues. Fairness and decency should indeed sit at the heart of our immigration and asylum system, particularly when it involves children. It might be helpful if I set out in general terms the Government’s approach to age assessment. As he observed, the age of a person arriving in the United Kingdom would normally be established from the documents with which they travelled, but many who claim to be children do not have documentary evidence to support their age.

I am sure there is no real point of disagreement between the Government and the Opposition that there are serious safeguarding risks if individuals over the age of 18 are treated as children and placed in settings with children. We all know about the high-profile case in Bournemouth last year of an adult man who was assessed as being 14 years old and in fact was wanted for a double murder in Serbia. We obviously want to avoid situations of that nature, and we are aware of other examples where pupils in schools have raised an alarm about an obviously mature adult who has joined their class purporting to be a child—indeed, in one case someone was reassessed to be 10 years older than their claimed age. That reduces the valuable resource and support that is available to genuine children, and undermines public confidence. Of course the Government have always been clear that there are serious equivalent safeguarding risks if true children are treated as adults.

I must point out that there are incentives for adults to claim to be under 18, as unaccompanied children generally receive a higher level of support than adults in several respects. That includes the accommodation and support they are provided with, the level of care they receive, perhaps including therapeutic care, the procedural and substantive treatment of their immigration claim, the arrangements that are needed to secure their possible removal, and whether or not they can be detained in immigration detention. The legislative reforms that the Government are bringing forward aim to make those assessments more consistent, reliable and robust from the outset.

Section 52 of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 makes provision for the scientific method of age assessment. This is a new and vital tool for the assessment of age that the Government need to get right. The full plans for integrating scientific age assessments into the existing process will be set out very shortly.

We accept that there is no single assessment method, scientific or otherwise, that can determine an individual’s age. In response to the hon. Gentleman’s challenge, scientific methods offer the opportunity for significant improvement, which is something we should welcome wherever we sit in respect of this debate. It should also be noted that the UK is one of the few European countries that do not currently employ any scientific methods of age assessment.

The Immigration (Age Assessments) Regulations 2024 came into force in January this year. They specify the use of X-rays and MRIs of certain body areas, including the wrist, to aid age estimation, as proposed in the recommendations of the Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee. I hope I can reassure the hon. Gentleman by saying that this is an expert committee, consisting of subject matter experts from a range of disciplines including social work, dentistry and radiology, and established by the Home Office’s chief scientific adviser to provide expert advice on potential scientific methods of assessment, as well as ethics and best practice for their use.

Can the Minister explain why the committee has encouraged the Government to abandon scientific methods of age assessment?

Let me gently repeat that we are not going to do that. We are one of the only European countries that do not employ any scientific methods, and we are working towards the implementation of that. I think I gave a fair caveat by accepting that there is no single method that will ever be truly reliable, but a method can be used in conjunction with others. In due course I shall say something about the Merton test, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his speech. In our view, this is not just important but vital progress in the fair and accurate assessment of age, which is relevant to exactly the kinds of protection with which the hon. Gentleman is primarily concerned.

The combination of dental and skeletal images is important, as it increases the accuracy of the approach. The committee advocates a likelihood ratio method which offers a logical and consistent summary of the evidence and permits greater confidence in, particularly, the range of age assessment of whether the claimed age is possible. Given the scientific methods specified in the regulations, when an individual refuses to consent—without reasonable grounds—to the use of those methods, a decision maker must take that refusal as damaging the age-disputed person’s credibility. This is referred to as a “negative inference”. It would not automatically preclude the individual from being considered to be a child; that refusal would be taken into consideration alongside other evidence as part of the Merton-compliant age assessment process. None the less, it will be relevant.

Let me also clarify the current process of initial age investigations. The hon. Gentleman is correct: on the individual’s arrival, the initial assessment is undertaken by an immigration officer. The threshold that must be applied is that immigration officers may treat an individual as an adult only when two members of Home Office staff determine that individual’s physical appearance and demeanour strongly suggest that he or she is significantly over the age of 18. That is a deliberately high threshold. The principle of the benefit of the doubt is key: when there is doubt, an individual will be treated as a child pending further observation and consideration by a local authority. That approach was confirmed by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of BF (Eritrea) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department in 2021.

When doubt remains after the initial age assessment has been undertaken, the local authority will conduct a more in-depth assessment, known as the Merton-compliant age assessment, to which the hon. Gentleman has already referred. Merton assessments are holistic, social worker-led assessments that must adhere to principles that have been set out by the courts in the case of R (on the application of B) v. London Borough of Merton—a well-established public law case—as well as in subsequent case law. We know, however, that these tests are not sufficiently precise. They depend entirely on oral questions being put to the individual. In order to strengthen them, the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 allows local authorities to refer age assessments to designated officials of the Home Office who form the national age assessment board. The board, which was launched in March 2023, currently consists of 42 expert social workers, and aims to increase capacity and expertise in the system until we have scientific methods working alongside it. As well as conducting assessments for local authorities, the board supports them with training and best-practice advice.

Lastly, through the Illegal Migration Act 2023, the Government have taken steps to ensure that the process is as robust as possible. Section 58 of the Act introduces a regulation-making power that would allow the Secretary of State to set out the effect of a decision by an individual not to consent to the use of a specified scientific method for age assessment. Those regulations could, in the future, specify that a person who refuses to consent without reasonable grounds is to be treated as though the decision maker had decided that they were over the age of 18. That power will not be used unless—and until—the Home Secretary determines that the science and analysis is sufficiently accurate to support providing for an automatic assumption of adulthood. Under section 57 of the 2023 Act, judicial reviews will not suspend removal, to avoid lengthy age disputes delaying or preventing removal of those who have been assessed to be adults.

In closing, once again I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate, raising what is indeed a sensitive issue, where accuracy really does matter. Whatever the dispute, I think that we agree on that point. Age assessment is critical not only to the integrity of our system, but, of course, to the protection of genuine children. We understand that it is crucial that these assessments are robust, consistent and well-evidenced to ensure that genuine children are not incorrectly treated as adults, and that adults are disincentivised from knowingly misrepresenting themselves as children.

The Minister is being incredibly generous in giving way again. To further the attempts at accuracy, may I press her on the point I made about further monitoring of those whose claim of being a child is rejected at the border? At the moment, we have no data showing how many of those decisions are overturned later, other than that pulled together by the charities I referred to earlier, who found that there were 1,300 between January 2022 and June 2023, and I understand that there have been some 600 since then. It would be incredibly helpful if the Government were to start tracking and monitoring that information. It would improve their own data and, I think, take us some way towards having greater certainty that they are on top of this issue.

If the hon. Gentleman would be willing to write to the immigration Minister—I have tried to think about which of the two it would apply to, but I will get my office to clarify that—I will, of course, relay what has happened in this debate and ask them to reply specifically with reference to the numbers and mis-categorisations that the Refugee Council has drawn to his attention in that period. This is an important issue, and, as I have set out, one that the Government approach with the seriousness—and I hope the sensitivity—that this House would expect.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.