Large numbers of teenage refugees are still being routinely locked up, two years after the Coalition Government promised to end the detention of asylum-seeking children, a report today discloses.
The Refugee Council condemns the treatment of these “forgotten children” – youngsters who arrive alone without travel documents and are treated as adults – as a scandal.
The Government promised in the Coalition Agreement of 2010 to “end the detention of children for immigration purposes”. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, later pledged to end the practice by May 2011.
However, the Refugee Council reveals that several dozen children have been locked up because of ambiguity over their age and immigration officers or social workers then wrongly assess how old they are.
Six youngsters were released in the first three months of 2012 after later being discovered to be aged under 18 and another four potential cases are still being examined.
Twenty-two children were wrongly locked up in 2011 because of the loophole and 26 were detained in 2010, the Refugee Council’s figures show.
At least 100 unaccompanied children arrive in Britain every month without documents that verify when they were born.
When there is confusion over their age, UK Border Agency guidelines stipulate that they should be treated as adults – and face detention and removal from Britain – if their “physical appearance and/or general demeanour very strongly indicates they are significantly over 18”.
When an immigrant officer is unsure of a new arrival’s age, social workers are called in to make an assessment.
But the Refugee Council warns in its report: “Appearance is a particularly unreliable indicator of age, particularly when children are going through puberty.”
Donna Covey, its chief executive, said: “These are children who have fled horrifying situations in their own countries and have made traumatic journeys to reach safety here.
“They are then met with disbelief by the people who are supposed to help them and locked up with other adults in detention centres. The UK would never treat a British child in this way.
“We have an obligation to protect these children, so it is imperative they are not held in detention and are given the benefit of the doubt.”
Numbers of unaccompanied child refugees arriving in Britain have fallen by two-thirds since 2007, but still stood at 1,277 last year. Of these, 354 were categorised as “age-disputed” by immigration officers.
Refugee youngsters often travel on fraudulent adult passports to help them get a ticket out of their home countries and are advised to say they are adults to prevent themselves being separated from fellow travellers.
The Refugee Council acknowledges it can be difficult under these circumstances to make accurate assessments of a youngster’s true age, but insists that they should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Case Study - Kabir
He fled from Iran where his father had been killed and his brother jailed for opposing the Ahmadinejad regime. He was discovered by police hiding in a lorry and called in a social worker who concluded he could be treated as an adult because he was over 18. He was, in fact, just 15.
Kabir, who spoke no English, was kept in a police cell for four days and transferred to an Immigration Removal Centre, where he was held for nearly a month.
A psychiatrist who assessed him later said was suffering mental health problems as a result of his ordeal – particularly because he was not able to mix with anyone of his own age.