The Home Office provoked fury after it announced that teenage asylum-seekers who arrive alone in Britain could for the first time be forcibly deported.
Refugee groups and children's charities protested that the threatened removals would endanger and distress vulnerable young people fleeing nations in turmoil.
Some 3,000 unaccompanied youngsters claim asylum every year, with the largest numbers coming from Afghanistan, Iran, eastern Africa and China.
Children are allowed to remain in the country until they reach 18, when their cases for asylum are considered alongside adult applicants.
Liam Byrne, the Immigration minister, said that the policy was a "green light" to people-traffickers who could promise teenagers they would not be sent home once they reached Britain.
In a consultation document, the Home Office said under-18s would be offered help to go home voluntarily when it was safe to do so, but added that it could not be right for them to remain in this country when they had turned down the chance.
It added: "We will therefore consider, on a case by case basis, enforcing the removal of those who have not reached 18 and who do not accept the offer of an assisted voluntary return where it is clear that the consequences of their actions have been explained and understood by them."
But Lisa Nandy, policy adviser for the Children's Society, warned: "This will cause great distress and suffering to many who have fled torture, war and poverty and runs contrary to the Government's aspiration to keep these children safe."
Dame Mary Marsh, chief executive of the children's charity, the NSPCC, said: "The Government appears to be turning its back on children who have been separated from their families and who may have suffered trauma or persecution."
She added: "The majority of these children will be alone, frightened and unable to speak English and therefore powerless to explain why their safety depends on remaining in the UK. Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "The Government should not try to force any child to return against their wishes where their safety and welfare cannot be guaranteed. These are not children who come here seeking a better life, with their families waiting for them in peaceful homes. Many of them are children from war zones."
Mr Byrne also announced that regional centres will be set up to specialise in assessing the age of applicants who claim to be children, to stop over-18s claiming they are still minors. Plans to use X-rays to help determine age will be considered by a working group after the idea was opposed by campaigners on human rights and health grounds.
Plans to find alternatives to detention for asylum-seeking families were also announced by the Home Office.Reuse content