Coram Children’s Legal Centre (CCLC) has today joined with fellow members of the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium (RMCC) to express its concerns about new measures being debated by MPs on Tuesday 2nd November on age assessment of asylum-seeking children. Age assessment is the means by which professionals assess the age of children and young people entering the UK alone whose age is disbelieved.
The measures are a part of the Nationality and Borders Bill 2021, which was first published on 6th July 2021. These measures, however, were introduced at the last minute – published on Friday 21st October, only a few days before this scheduled debate.
These last-minute clauses radically change the system by which children’s ages are assessed. The Bill would take power away from local authorities and the social workers caring for child asylum seekers, and would give the Home Office power to force social workers to conduct age assessments as a matter of routine, whether or not a social worker has reason to disbelieve a child.
The new clauses also risk seriously undermining prosecutions and sentencing for crimes against children, including trafficking. The Government seeks to come down hard on people traffickers and smugglers but the RMCC believes that introducing inaccurate methods of assessing age and higher evidential thresholds will make the Government weaker on crimes against children.
The new clauses also include potentially harmful ‘scientific’ methods of assessing age. The Home Secretary appeared to abandon plans to x-ray children’s teeth in October after a backlash by dentists, but now plans to legislate for other means including ‘examining or measuring parts of a person’s body’ and the analysis of saliva, cell or other samples and the DNA within them. 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 someone’s age. Professional medical bodies are unequivocal in their rejection of their use (see for example this statement from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health).
The RMCC also strongly opposes new clauses which include issues over who can consent to medical procedures with no medical benefit, and would mean that if a child/young person or their parent or guardian does not consent to the use of a ‘specified scientific method’ then this should be taken as damaging their credibility. This will force many children and young people to undergo assessments that may be harmful, out of fear of negatively impacting their asylum or trafficking claim.
The number of children arriving unaccompanied in the UK is small – there are currently around 5,000 children looked after by local authorities in England. Only several hundred of these children have their age disputed each year.
Stewart MacLachlan, Senior Legal and Policy Officer at Coram Children’s Legal Centre, said:
“Some unaccompanied children do not know how exactly how old they are or their exact date of birth. Processes for the registration of births differ across the world, and the importance placed on chronological age and date of birth – which is high in the UK – is not the same everywhere. 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.”
“In the UK age is hugely important – it determines how or whether they are supported by children’s services, access to education, and impacts their asylum claim and trafficking referral. 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. Instead, we ask the Home Office to ensure that age assessments are child-centred, not routine, and recognise the lack of certainty in ascertaining age.”
Notes for Editors
- The Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium (RMCC) is a coalition of over 60 organisations
- The RMCC has published a briefing for MPs about the age assessment clauses which is available here: https://www.childrenslegalcentre.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/RMCC-briefing-Committee-stage-NC29_37-Age-assessments-Nationality-and-Borders-Bill.pdf
- The RMCC has also published a statement of general principles in relation to age assessment in June when these measures were first discussed as part of the New Pan for Immigration, available here: https://article39.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/New-Plan-for-Immigration-Age-Assessments_RMCC-briefing-FINAL.pdf
- For statistics on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and age assessment, see https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/children-looked-after-in-england-including-adoptions/2020 and https://media.refugeecouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/22121107/Children-in-the-Asylum-System-Mar-2021.pdf