The Home Office is using age assessments as a weapon in the hostile environment. And vulnerable young people are suffering.

Alexander Tekle, a young asylum seeker from Eritrea, took his own life

Over the Christmas period at least three newspapers ran big splashes about adults pretending to be children in order to abuse the asylum system. These all emanated from the Home Office and, I think, quite deliberately build on a narrative that’s been around for a long time, one which plays into a racist trope that foreign men are predatory and dangerous.

On December 27 2021 at 10.00pm The Telegraph ran a story from the Home Office claiming that “The number of adult migrants falsely claiming to be children has more than trebled in a year to a record 1,100 official figures show”

At exactly 12.01am on December 28 2021 the Daily Mail and the Times published the same story. Here’s how it appeared in the Mail.

Before I go any further I should say that I am a qualified teacher. I work for a refugee charity which supports young asylum seekers. I have worked there for seven years and before that I spent ten years working in London secondary schools where I worked with young people from 11–18, many of whom came from refugee and migrant backgrounds. So I have a good amount of experience of working with teenagers and a lot of experience of working with asylum seekers and refugees. In the seventeen years I have been working with these groups I have never, not once, met someone I thought was an adult pretending to be a child. I am not saying that it has never happened. I am saying that I haven’t ever met someone I thought was doing that and I have worked with hundreds of young people. I have however met many young vulnerable people — dozens in fact — who have been told that they are adults rather than children and who have been emotionally distressed and put at serious risk as a result.

The flurry of stories over Christmas about all these predatory and fraudulent men pretending to be kids was followed up within days by a press release from the Home Office on 5 January that promised there would be a roll out of “scientific methods” for assessing the age of asylum seeking children. In the press release the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is quoted as saying:

It is a fact that two thirds of age dispute cases have found that the individual claiming to be a child is actually over the age of 18. I have given more resources and support to local councils to ensure that they apply vigorous and robust tests to check the ages of migrants to stop adult men being automatically classified as children.

The press release goes on to highlight methods used in other countries such as Greece, where dental x-rays are used.

So what’s the problem? If there are ‘scientific’ methods of assessing age then we should be using them, right?

The problem is that there is no way of accurately deciding a young person’s age. No matter how many times the Home Office harps on about ‘scientific methods’ they just don’t exist. In fact as the Coram Children’s Legal Centre says here:

Age determination is an inexact science, and the margin of error can sometimes be as much as five years either side, especially around the time of puberty. There is no single reliable method for making precise estimates, and no conclusive medical test.

And in the UK the British Dental Association (BDA)has already pushed back firmly on using x-rays to assess age. In a press release in October 2021 the BDA said:

The British Dental Association has welcomed reports the Home Office has reconsidered plans to introduce the use of dental X-rays to determine age in asylum cases. The Association has been campaigning against the roll out of dental age checks for migrants, working closely with the Refugee Council, alongside other healthcare bodies and opposition health and home teams.

It is expected government amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill will still give significant latitude to the Home Office to define in due course what constitutes ‘robust’ and ‘scientific methods’ of age assessment. On that basis the BDA will continue to seek amendments to the Bill to rule out radiographic tests.

The Association has vigorously opposed the use of dental X-rays to determine whether asylum seekers have reached the age of 18, stressing they are an inaccurate method for assessing age.

The BDA also believes that it is inappropriate and unethical to subject people to radiation when there is no health benefit for them.

So despite being told by the BDA that dental x-rays are an ‘inaccurate’ method of determining age the association was clearly expecting the government to try and push it through again in an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill, a prediction that, given this latest press release, now seems to be entirely on the money.

So what’s the impact on children of being wrongly assessed as adults?

Huge. Absolutely huge. Devastating in fact. The recent inquiry into Alexander Tekle’s death heard that the young asylum seeker took his own life after being wrongly assessed as an adult. He was moved into Home Office accommodation for adults where he was violently assaulted. After this he began drinking and entered a destructive spiral which resulted in his death. In his summing up the coroner said:

that Kent County Council had “positively encouraged and agitated” for Alex to go to Home Office accommodation and “did not do anywhere near as much as they might have done” to keep him within the care of children’s services.

“An opportunity to keep Alex within their care was lost, and Alex might have been better off had it not have been,” he added.

So Alex was at 17, wrongly assessed as older and placed into an adult setting, thereby putting him at risk. But surely Alex is a isolated case? Sadly not. Over the past few years there have been many times when Kent County Council has reached its quota of unaccompanied asylum seeking children, meaning that rather than being sent straight to the children’s reception centre in the county the authorities in Dover were in a situation where they had an increasing number of arrivals and nowhere to put them. In July 2021 Stuart Luke of Instalaw, a law firm which deals with many age disputes, was interviewed by Mark Townsend for the Observer. He told him that:

the recent announcement that the Kent unit to house unaccompanied children was full meant that every new arrival claiming to be a child was being disputed. Speaking on Wednesday morning, Luke said he had just met with an underage new arrival, one of 42 similar cases taken on by his firm last week.

He said the youngster was immediately detained at an immigration removal centre near Gatwick airport and interviewed by officials over the phone. “That phone interview led to the Home Office saying: ‘We do not believe you are a child’ but without even seeing them. They would usually dispute someone’s age on the basis of appearance, demeanour and presentation but they are not even observing them,” he said.

Luke added that while the Home Office was quick to announce how many age assessment cases it disputed, it ignored how many decisions were subsequently overturned. “Saying there are all these people lying about their age is just not true,” he said. He estimates that at least 75 of every 100 contested cases are overturned in the child’s favour.

You see. It’s one thing listing as the Home Office does the amount of people that have been assessed as older than they claim. They are always very reluctant to be transparent about the numbers of young people wrongly assessed as adults and placed at safeguarding risk as a result.

So what about all these hundreds of adults that are lying about their ages? Don’t they exist?

Well I don’t think so, no. At least not in the numbers that the Home Office claim. It’s certainly true that miscommunications about age happen, but I think that is almost certainly down to inappropriate and inadequate procedures on arrival, rather than deliberate deception.

To fully understand this we have to know something about how people are assessed when they arrive.

In his inspection report of reception facilities at Dover in December 2021 the Chief Inspector of Prisons expressed serious concerns about the way age assessments happened once young people arrived in Dover. His report says:

As at our last inspection, abridged asylum screening interviews and welfare interviews for children continued to take place before detainees had a chance to rest or in the early hours of the morning.

In other words, immediately after making the Channel crossing, and while exhausted and traumatised, children were being questioned. But it gets worse. The report goes on to say:

We had concerns about the determination of age on arrival. There was no use of professional telephone interpreting in Tug Haven and we observed staff attempting to establish ages by use of hand signals.

So let’s just go back over that one more time. Not only were children and others being interviewed while exhausted and traumatised, they were interviewed without interpreters and through sign language. Honestly, let that sink in. A situation has been created where miscommunication is not only possible but likely, and then the Home Office blames the asylum seekers for miscommunications and labels them liars and predators.

It’s an appalling situation and one that needs the full attention of the press. Sadly many seem to be too busy uncritically churning out Home Office press releases.

Unfortunately I can’t compete with the reach of The Telegraph, Times and Mail. But I do have some ways to try to and redress the balance. A Twitter thread I wrote about this has been retweeted well over 1000 times and reached 400,000 people. I don’t expect this blog post to reach as many but what it does do is to collect some of the key pieces of information together that people can use to push back against the toxic Home Office narrative. There are many of us doing that and we won’t stop.

So to recap:

  1. The Home Office has suggested that over 1,100 adults have lied and pretended to be child asylum seekers over the past year
  2. The Home Office has weaponised this claim and has used it to undermine sympathy for young refugees, saying they are not genuine children but predatory adult men
  3. Actually the figures are misleading anyway because of the completely inappropriate and inadequate ways in which assessments are made after young people arrive
  4. They are also misleading because many of the age assessments which find them to be adults are subsequently overturned (those pesky activist lawyers again, damn them)
  5. The Home Office is now promising ‘scientific methods’ for accurately assessing young people’s ages
  6. These methods don’t exist
  7. Much of the media are reporting on these ‘scientific methods’ and uncritically regurgitating Home Office press releases
  8. We should all be really cross about that
  9. There is a real danger to the many asylum-seeking children who are wrongly assessed as adults and have their safeguarding put at risk as a result
  10. Those of us working on the ground with young refugees have serious and growing concerns about this.

I work for a refugee charity and live on the Kent coast