The Home Office will set up a new committee to provide advice on scientific ways of checking how old an asylum seeker is, as part of a package of measures to prevent adults gaining access to children’s services.
The new Scientific Advisory Committee will include medical practitioners, academics, scientists and social workers and will consider the accuracy and reliability of “a range” of methods for estimating age, the Home Office said.
The department said new methods were needed to tackle what it called a “significant” problem of asylum-seeking adults posing as children and accessing support they are not entitled to, and to remove the safeguarding risks of adults being wrongly placed in children’s care systems.
According to the Home Office, 1,696 age-dispute cases against people claiming to be children were resolved in the 12 months to September. Around two-thirds of those whose age was disputed were found to be adults, it said.
However, charities have criticised the move, saying it could make it harder for children to access services and noting that previous studies have shown age estimation is not precise.
The Home Office has said the committee will also consider ethical and medical issues associated with different approaches. It will report its findings directly to departmental chief scientific adviser Jennifer Rubin to support her in advising ministers on appropriate scientific methods.
Dame Sue Black, pro vice chancellor for engagement at Lancaster University and one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists, has been appointed to chair the committee on an interim basis. The Home Office said a permanent appointment “will be made in due course”.
The creation of the Scientific Advisory Committee is part of the government’s nationality and borders bill, which is currently being debated in the House of Lords. Introducing new methods for assessing the age of asylum seekers would require a change to UK law.
The Home Office said the reforms will bring the UK’s age-checking policy in line with other countries. Many European countries use X-ray scans, and sometimes CT scans and MRI imaging, to verify age, it said.
The Home Office will also set up a National Age Assessment Board with social workers who can conduct age assessments on behalf of local authorities.
And it will also create a new right of appeal, which it says will provide a quicker and cheaper way to resolve legal disputes compared to the current “time consuming, challenging and expensive” system.
Ethical concerns over medical age assessment
Many healthcare professionals, academics, charities and legal practitioners believe medical age assessment is ethically problematic, with concerns about accuracy and the risks of an incorrect decision.
Various medical methods are used in Europe but the Centre for Health Equity Studies said the European Asylum Support Office have both found that no method is accurate enough.
The use of dental X-rays was reportedly dropped by the Home Office last year after the British Dental Association said it would be “inappropriate and unethical” and suggested dentists could be accused of criminal battery. The BDA said X-rays were unreliable in proving age and that it would be wrong to expose children to radiation without medical necessity.
Several charities spoke out against the proposal at the time, calling it “regressive”.
Daniel Sohege, a specialist in international refugee law, said age assessments were “flawed and dangerous” and using them based on “disingenuous arguments” would put children at risk.
Sohege, director of the human rights advocacy organisation Stand for All, said previous age-dispute cases had led to children being miscategorised as adults, “with mistakes being hard and protracted to rectify”. It sometimes takes so long to overturn incorrect age disputes that someone who enters the UK as a child has turned 18 and been denied services by that time, he added.
A major concern from those studying medical assessments of asylum seekers is that it would be worse to incorrectly treat a child as an adult than to treat an adult as a child.
The Centre for Health Equity Studies said this makes medical age assessment “a highly risky endeavour”.
Coram Children's Legal Centre, a charity that promotes children's rights, said the process of age assessment can also cause a lot of anxiety, confusion and frustration to vulnerable children and young people.
An ethical analysis of medical age assessments in the asylum process, commissioned by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, said ethical concerns can be addressed in a system where the assessment is sufficiently accurate and adequate safeguards are in place.
But the report agreed that, in cases of considerable uncertainty, the individual should be regarded as under 18 as it is worse to deny a child their rights than to mistakenly assign those rights to an adult.
And it said concerns remained over whether asylum seekers’ consent to the procedure can be considered genuinely voluntary given the potentially dire consequences of declining.
The new Home Office rules will mean that, if someone refuses to undergo a scientific age assessment without good reason, the age assessor must consider this refusal as damaging the person’s credibility when deciding to believe what they say about their age.
The Swedish study also said concerns remained about whether age assessments will exacerbate or diminish negative public attitudes towards asylum seekers or discriminatory/racist views generally.
Home secretary Priti Patel said the move will “give the British public confidence that we will end the overt exploitation of our laws and UK taxpayers”.