More than 1,000 child refugees at risk after being classified as adults – report | Immigration and asylum

Immigration and asylum

Rushed and flawed age assessments leave hundreds of children exposed to abuse and exploitation

Mon 22 Jan 2024 23.00 CET

Hundreds of child refugees have encountered abuse and exploitation and some have been placed in adult jails, after their ages were wrongly assessed by the Home Office, according to a new report.

At least 1,300 children were incorrectly deemed to be adults by the Home Office over an 18-month period, the report by the Refugee Council, the Helen Bamber Foundation and Humans For Rights Network found.

As a result of these flawed age assessments – which can take as little as 10 minutes – by Home Office officials shortly after they arrived in the UK, some children have been sent to hotels for adult asylum seekers, while others have been placed in immigration removal centres or adult prisons.

Placing children in unsupervised adult accommodation “is exposing them to significant risks and potential harm”, says the report, titled Forced Adulthood.

Between January and June 2023, 69 local authorities received 1,004 referrals to children’s services of young people placed in adult accommodation or detained, according to freedom of information data obtained by the authors of the report. Of 847 children who were age assessed by social workers, more than half were found to be children who had been wrongly housed with adults or detained.

Children as young as 14 have been forced to share rooms with unrelated adults, with no safeguards in place. Fourteen children spent time in adult prisons after being charged with immigration offences under the Nationality and Borders Act.

Over an 18-month period at least 1,300 child refugees were failed by the Home Office’s flawed age assessment process and suffered harm, according to the new figures combined with previously obtained 2022 data.

The Refugee Council’s Age Dispute Project assisted 185 children who had initially been determined to be adults – 98 were taken into local authority care from an unsafe adult setting while some are pending further assessment.

In 2022, one child was stabbed after being placed in a hotel for adult asylum seekers and another was sexually assaulted by an unrelated adult they were forced to share a room with. The report found that children wrongly classified as adults were at risk of suicidal ideation and absconding.

The report calls on the Home Office to only dispute a child’s claimed age in exceptional circumstances, and to routinely notify local authorities whenever a potential child has been determined by them to be an adult.

Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said: “Hidden from view, very vulnerable child refugees are being exposed to harm and abuse as a result of inaccurate Home Office decision-making. It is an alarming child protection failure and the government must take urgent action so every child is kept safe.”

Maddie Harris, director of Humans for Rights Network, said: “We have assisted hundreds of children who have been wrongly placed in adult asylum hotels and adult prisons. Most alarmingly, this includes 14 children who have spent up to seven months in adult prisons sharing cells with adult males. These children are terrified and continue to be profoundly affected by this experience of wrongful criminalisation.”

Kamena Dorling, director of policy at the Helen Bamber Foundation, said: “These new figures show that there continues to be something fundamentally wrong with Home Office decision-making at the border, and hundreds of children are suffering as a result.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Age assessments can be challenging and there is no single method which can determine a person’s age with precision. Many individuals arriving in the UK who claim to be children often don’t have clear evidence like an original passport or identity document to back this up.

“We are strengthening our age assessment process, including establishing the National Age Assessment Board and specifying scientific methods of age assessments. Measures under the Illegal Migration Act will ensure the swift removal of individuals who have been assessed as adults and who have no right to remain in the UK.”

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