Lancaster University Professor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement, Dame Sue Black, is set to chair a new scientific advisory committee discussing age assessments for asylum seekers.
The introduction of new UK laws for assessing the age of asylum seekers is set to move UK policy in line with other European nations like Finland, Normandy, France and Greece, who use scientific evaluations including CT-scans, MRI imaging and x-rays of teeth and bone fusion. Due to asylum seekers often failing to have any form of documentation such as birth certificates or passports, whether destroyed, lost, forged or never awarded, accurate methods for determining age are important.
Previously, the UK has followed a policy whereby, if the age of an asylum seeker is doubted by Home Office upon the first application for asylum then they will undergo an analysis based solely on appearance and demeanour.
If determined to be ‘significantly over the age of 18’ they will then be referred to an in-depth local authority-led assessment which should follow guidelines set out by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services – during which time they should be treated as a child.
2019-20 saw a combined total of 6,066 asylum child applicants received by the UK, of which 1530 had their age challenged resulting in 50% of that cohort revealed to be adults.
The age of asylum seekers, and the classification as a child, is important with it determining what social care is provided to an individual, their education, whether they are detained as an adult and even their asylum provision.
Equally, it’s important, in a number of cases, to understand whether an individual is over or under the age of 16 as it determines their placement in semi-independent living in accordance with the Children Act 1989.
However, due to what Home Secretary Priti Patel described as “blatant abuses” by those with “no rights to be in our country,” namely “single grown men, masquerading as children,” inquiries into new scientific ways of determining age aims to ensure that asylum seekers who falsely claim to be children will be more accurately identified.
Likewise, it will also help assure that children who are wrongly identified as adults due to the visual and psychological assessments currently used will be more accurately provided with the support that they need.
In March 2021 the Court of Appeal highlighted the damaging effects of children being detained as adults, describing them as:
In June, the Refugee Migrants Children Consortium (RMCC) identified a case study where a 16 year old asylum seeker was wrongfully grouped with adults at the hands of the current assessment system; psychological trauma was highlighted as a direct result of this mistake.
Consequently, the new Home Office scientific advisory committee – chaired on an interim basis by Dame Sue Black until a permanent appointment is decided on – will comprise a range of experts from medical, academic, scientific and social working backgrounds.
Reporting directly to the Home Office Chief Advisor, Professor Jennifer Rubin, the committee will be considering a range of ways of determining age, alongside the possible ethical and medical issues accompanying them.