‘I’m so afraid’: Child refugees forced to share rooms with adults after being wrongly deemed over 18

Exclusive: Alarm over quality of Home Office age assessments as hundreds placed in adult hotels and only moved to children’s services when charities intervene

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 16 January 2022 20:07 GMT
Ministers have been accused of ‘washing their hands of’ child asylum seekers by operating an age assessment process that often wrongly labels them adults
Ministers have been accused of ‘washing their hands of’ child asylum seekers by operating an age assessment process that often wrongly labels them adults (AFP via Getty Images)

Child refugees are being forced to share rooms and even beds with adults they do not know as increasing numbers are incorrectly placed in accommodation meant for over-18s by the government, The Independent can reveal.

Hundreds of unaccompanied male and female asylum seekers who say they are children have been discovered in hotels intended for adults in recent months, with many fearful of leaving their rooms and some driven to suicidal ideation, while others have run away.

In one case, an Ethiopian girl believed to be 16 who said she was repeatedly raped on her journey to the UK was placed in a mixed-gender hotel with adult men after being judged by Home Office staff to be 23. In another, a male who says he is 17 had to share a double bed with an adult man.

Ministers have been accused of “washing their hands of” child asylum seekers by operating an age assessment process that often wrongly labels them adults, leaving local authorities to “pick up the pieces” and take them into children’s services when the decisions are found to be incorrect.

Children have had to live among adults, sometimes sharing rooms with strangers, for weeks or months before they have come into contact with a charity that has advocated to get them moved into care, at which point they undergo a formal age assessment and are often recognised as minors.

Maddie Harris, founder of Humans for Rights Network (HRN), said: “The Home Office is placing children in adult hotels all over the country, completely washing their hands of them. They’re waiting for them to self-refer to an organisation like ours, and then the local authority has to do something about it.”

The charity has supported 73 young people in the past seven months who say they are children and appear to be under 18 but have been placed in adult hotels. The majority are now in local authority care after the charity referred them to lawyers, though this process takes several weeks.

Ms Harris said some age disputed minors were having to share rooms with adults, with one forced to share a double bed with a man he does not know. Clearsprings, the Home Office contractor managing the hotel, declined to comment.

A Home Office spokesperson did not deny that room-sharing was taking place, but said that that no two individuals who are unknown to each other would be required or allowed to share beds in hotels or any asylum accommodation regardless of whether they are adults or minors.

Hannah Marwood, of Care4Calais, said the charity has come across 421 cases of age disputed minors in hotels since September 2020, with a “significant increase” in recent months. She said they were often “scared and confused” and that in some cases they had run away. The majority have been moved into care following the charity’s intervention.

One young person who spent a month in an adult hotel in the northwest of England after being judged to be an adult on his arrival in November, despite his claimed age being 17, told The Independent he felt frightened.

The asylum seeker, who was transferred to children’s services earlier this week after charity Kurdish Umbrella intervened, said: “I was the only child in the hotel. Everyone else was between 30 and 50. I was scared to leave my room. The older people would drink at night. They would yell and shout.”

Text messages from underage asylum seekers were sent to charity workers where they pleaded for legal help (Supplied)
Other teenagers said they were contemplating suicide (Supplied)
One child said everyone else at the hotel was between 30 and 50 (Supplied)

Text messages from other young people sent to charity workers, seen by The Independent, read: “I am in a hotel, all bigger [than] me, all cigarettes […] I am afraid”, “I’m afraid among the big people” and “I can’t be here anymore. I’ll kill myself. Please help me. I’m so scared. I’m not compatible with these men”.

One young female from Ethiopia who says she is 16 has been in a mixed-gender hotel in London since October 2021 after she was deemed by the Home Office to be 23. She recently made contact with charity Da’aro Youth, to whom she disclosed that she was raped repeatedly during her journey to the UK.

Da’aro Youth referred her to the local council this week and she is due to be taken into care on Monday. Benny Hunter, coordinator of the charity, said: “It gravely concerns me that there has been no safeguarding for someone who identified herself as a child. She is a potential victim of trafficking and sexual violence in a hotel with older adult men, at risk of further exploitation.”

After crossing the Channel, asylum seekers who say they are children undergo a “short” age assessment by social workers recruited by the Home Office or are visually assessed by Border Force officials. If judged to be over the age of 18, they are referred on to adult accommodation, usually hotels. If not they are sent to children’s services or hotels designated for minors.

The Home Office age assessment process is currently facing a legal challenge, with lawyers from Instalaw Solicitors arguing that it is unlawful on the basis that the assessments are being carried out without the required safeguards in place, and on a number of other grounds.

Martin Bridger, of Instalaw Solicitors, said he had represented a number of young people who had been placed in hotels but, following legal intervention, were confirmed to be children by social services. He cited one recent case whereby a young person claiming to be 14 was deemed 25 by the Home Office, but later had their claimed age accepted following legal intervention.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, claimed last week that asylum seekers were “blatantly abusing” the asylum system by falsely claiming to be children and announced plans to introduce new “scientific” methods for assessing age. She cited government data showing that 66 per cent of those who say they are children are found by the Home Office to be adults.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said these figures failed to take into account the “alarming” number of those deemed by the Home Office to be adults who are later found to in fact be children, and placed in hotels that are “neither safe nor appropriate” for them.

He told The Independent he was “deeply concerned” by the government’s proposed move towards “scientific” age assessments, saying they were “simply not reliable”.

Charlotte Ramsden, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said it was aware of “too many instances where children have been wrongly assessed as adults” and that local authorities were “picking up the pieces where decisions made by Home Office are found to be incorrect”.

“This is placing additional pressure on us and our staff at a time when children’s services and social workers are already stretched. It is also a scary and worrying time for children who are far from home and initially placed in unregistered and unregulated settings, namely hotels,” she said.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We take the welfare of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children extremely seriously and take great care to ensure children are not housed in adult accommodation.

“Our age assessment process seeks to balance the needs of vulnerable children whilst preventing adults abusing the system. Age-disputed cases remain a very challenging area of work in which no single assessment technique is likely to determine an individual’s age with precision.”

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