Measures introduced as part of the Nationality and Borders Bill last week, and due to be debated on Tuesday, would allow the government to use “scientifically verifiable” methods to check the age of child refugees.
This could include X-raying children’s teeth and “examining or measuring parts of a person’s body”, as well as analysing saliva, cells or other samples and the DNA within them.
The Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium (RMCC), whose members include Coram, the Children’s Society and Unicef UK, has expressed concerns about the plans, warning that they risk “seriously undermining” the government’s ability to tackle crimes against children
They said that introducing “inaccurate” and “damaging” methods of assessing age and “higher evidential thresholds” would make the government “weaker” on such crimes and increase the risk of children being wrongly placed in adult accommodation.
It comes after The Independent revealed earlier this year that child asylum seekers had been detained with adults and threatened with deportation after being wrongly deemed to be over 18. There have been further reports of children being assessed to be adults in the months since.
The Bill would also take power away from local authorities and the social workers caring for child asylum seekers, and give the Home Office power to force social workers to conduct age assessments as a matter of routine.
The use of scientific methods to assess age has long been generally accepted as lacking accuracy and being unethical and of limited use in working out one’s age. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the British Dentist Association have been unequivocal in their rejection of their use.
Stewart MacLachlan, senior legal and policy officer at Coram Children’s Legal Centre, told The Independent: “Many children are unable to show official identity documents, as they may have never had them, lost them when fleeing harm, or had them taken off them. Some children are trafficked using false documents.
“A child wrongly thought to be an adult will be accommodated or detained with adults, presenting a huge safeguarding and protection risk to already vulnerable children.
“We call on the Home Office to rethink these regressive proposals. It is simply unethical to legislate for the care of children based on unsound scientific research without the backing of the medical profession.”
Patricia Durr, chief executive at Ecpat UK, which is also a member of the RMCC, said the charity was “very concerned” about the impact the “regressive” measures would have on child trafficking victims.
“These are serious child protection matters and the government needs to accept that it needs the utmost care and a safe, humane and child centred approach,” she added.
“There really is no quick fix to determine age and the risks to children of being treated as adults and subjected to unethical and damaging processes are huge.
“Migrant children who are trafficked are already at significant risk of their age being disputed due to grooming by perpetrators or being provided with false identity documents to traffic them as adults and thereby escape scrutiny at ports and borders.”
Ms Durr said the charity had already seen child victims being placed at “serious risk” in accommodation with adults, in adult prison and in immigration detention.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We cannot allow asylum seeking adults to claim to be children, or children being wrongly treated as adults. Both of these present significant safeguarding risks to children.
“Age assessments are incredibly challenging, and so we are taking a number of steps – including through the Nationality and Borders Bill – to improve the age assessment process so only children are accommodated by local authorities. This will widen the evidence base for social workers to consider when making assessments and lead to better informed decisions.
“The New Plan for Immigration will stop abuse of the system while supporting those in genuine need.”
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