Scores of children and young people are still being held in adult immigration detention centres despite Coalition pledges to end the practice, The Independent has learnt.
Young asylum-seekers are being held in adult detention for weeks on end before the authorities decide that they are in fact children, according to the Refugee Council.
The charity found more than 40 children and young people in the adult detention estate in 2013 were wrongly assessed as adults.
The Government promised to end child detention in 2010 and has since trumpeted its success at doing so. But this fresh evidence shows the practice has not yet been abolished for those who cannot immediately prove their age, something which can be challenging for children fleeing conflict without proper documents.
Child welfare experts believe that anyone whose age is in question should be given the benefit of the doubt until their age has been carefully established by an independent professional. They argue that otherwise children forced to share rooms with adults could be at risk of abuse.
In 2013 the charity secured the release of 36 young people found in detention who had been wrongly assessed to be adults. They are aware of six other young people who have been released from detention into local authority care pending a new age assessment.
Of the young people released, 12 were under the age of 16, with two under the age of 15. The charity believes this figure is the “tip of the iceberg”, with more cases of children being wrongly detained going unreported and unchallenged.
The Refugee Council’s policy officer, Judith Dennis, said: “The Government knows that wrongfully imprisoning vulnerable children can cause lasting psychological and emotional damage so it’s completely astounding it continues to do so.
“Children within the asylum system are already extremely vulnerable. It’s wholly unacceptable that they are put at further risk by the authorities who are supposed to be protecting them.”
Young asylum-seekers whose age is disputed are frequently forced to share a room with adults in detention centres. For children fleeing conflict and other traumas, such as trafficking and sexual exploitation, experts say this can be extremely damaging.
The Children’s Commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, said: “I remain concerned at the clear evidence that migrant children are being detained with adults in adult immigration removal centres. We know that this is a harmful practice.”
She added: “Local authorities should assume immediate responsibility for those who may be children until a thorough assessment can be conducted. There is a clear process set out by the courts under which a young person should be assessed with an independent adult present to ensure their welfare. Immigration staff should never authorise detention in the absence of a local authority assessment.”
It is not known in all cases the Refugee Council worked with how long children were held in detention before it was discovered they were not adults. But those they do have records for were held for between six days and six weeks before being released.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have changed the immigration system to ensure the welfare of children is at the heart of the decision and removals process. On occasion, new information may come to light which indicates that a person we are treating as an adult is in fact a minor. In these circumstances, we would seek to release them to social services at the earliest opportunity for an age assessment.”
A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: “As soon as someone is identified as being a minor they are placed in the care of social services.”