A judge said the policy of detaining young people for an age assessment immediately upon arrival, without an appropriate adult to support them, breaches the law.
Hundreds of unaccompanied young people arriving on UK shores have been detained by the government in a facility called the Kent Intake Unit (KIU) for the purposes of carrying out a “short” age assessment, since Kent County Council stopped taking them into care in September 2020.
The Home Office recruited its own social workers to carry out these age assessments at the KIU if they were of the view that the individual claiming to be a child was potentially an adult. The assessments generally lasted no more than an hour, and there would not be an “appropriate adult” present to support the young person, as is policy during age assessments by children’s services. If judged to be over the age of 18, the asylum seeker was referred on to adult accommodation, usually hotels.
Mr Justice Henshaw found that the age-assessment process was “inherently unlawful in the sense that it lacks essential safeguards”, and that deciding to detain young people for an age assessment, and assessing them immediately upon arrival, was also unlawful.
The ruling comes after The Independent revealed this week that child asylum seekers had been forced to share rooms and even beds with adults they did not know, as increasing numbers are incorrectly judged by Home Office social workers to be over the age of 18.
In one case, an Ethiopian girl believed to be 16, who said she had been raped repeatedly on her journey to the UK, was placed in a mixed-sex hotel with adult men after being judged by Home Office staff to be 23. In another, a male believed to be 17 had to share a double bed with an adult man.
The findings prompted concerns that ministers were “washing their hands” of child asylum seekers by operating an age-assessment process that often wrongly labels them adults, leaving local councils to “pick up the pieces” and take them into care when the decisions are found to be incorrect.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said he was relieved that the Home Office’s “appalling practice” of age-assessing young people with “neither safeguards nor oversight” had been ruled unlawful.
He said the charity had helped numerous young people secure a lawful age assessment by social workers following a “flawed decision” made on their arrival.
“Distinguishing between adults and children is not something that can be done quickly; it takes time and expertise to make the right decision. It is disturbing that this government seeks to portray this issue as one of adults abusing the system and is coming up with quick fixes, including scientific methods, already deemed inaccurate and invasive,” Mr Solomon added.
The legal challenge was brought by two young asylum seekers who had been assessed to be adults by staff at the KIU. One of them had arrived in the UK in the back of a lorry, “exhausted and frightened”, and his age assessment was carried out on the same day, lasting for 42 minutes. The second arrived after a perilous journey across the Channel, soaking wet, and was subject to an age assessment four hours later, lasting an hour. He has since been identified as a child by social services.
Martin Bridger of Instalaw Solicitors, who represented the claimants, said the Home Office age-assessment policy was implemented “merely in an attempt to sidestep the need to comply with the assessing age policy and to sidestep the need to refer to children’s services in Kent”.
Handa Majed, founding trustee of Kurdish Umbrella, which supports young Kurdish asylum seekers whose age is disputed by the Home Office, said: “We hear stories from young people on a daily basis who are distressed by the process, their treatment, and the reasons for disputing their age.
“I am encouraged that the Home Office are reviewing their guidance and I hope that it will result in a fairer and better child-focused process for determining the age of young people who are unable to provide evidence on their arrival to prove age.”
Bridget Chapman, from Kent Refugee Action Network, said the consequences of getting age assessments wrong were “extremely serious”, adding: “This process seems to have been designed to be deliberately harsh and we are extremely pleased that it has now been ruled unlawful.”
The Home Office has been approached for comment.
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