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20 October 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:38pm

Calls to use dental X-rays to determine the age of refugee children are fuelled by hatred

The Home Office has followed the lead of the British Dental Association in making clear these tests don’t provide a reliable assessment. 

By Steve Symonds

Children who have fled from conflict zones and brutal regimes are finally being reunited with family in the UK. This should be a cause for celebration. Many have been living in squalor at risk from traffickers and abusers for months, not to mention the harms to which they will have been exposed on dangerous journeys to and within Europe. But instead, it has been drowned out by irresponsible and ill-informed headlines and the comments of a tiny handful of politicians and commentators. Why is this?

It is surely not because of any real compassion or care for children, still less for protecting the rights of refugees and this country’s frequently trumpeted tradition of providing hospitality and asylum.

As emphasised by the encouraging counter-reaction of many people posting images of family members looking well beyond their childhood ages, children grow and develop at very different rates. Some children – including quite young boys and girls – just look much older, and often this is a product of their life experiences.

But those who’ve responded with such outrage to the government finally acting on its moral and legal duties to reunite children with family in the UK spuriously claim to have the capacity to spot a child from a photo. Some have claimed to be able to do this by a facial recognition app which others have tested with results so wildly inaccurate as to be laughable, and some are championing dental x-rays to assess age.

The Home Office has followed the lead of the British Dental Association – itself supported by a range of medical and statistical experts – in making clear these don’t provide a reliable assessment. X-rays can only indicate an age range, and are incapable of distinguishing between a teenager and young adult. This is welcome.

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For those truly motivated to protect children, responding to any uncertainty about a young person’s age by subjecting her or him to even the modest radiation of an x-ray for no useful purpose is obviously inappropriate and unethical.

Indeed, real concern for children’s safety would have motivated far greater concern at the woeful length of time that has passed while the Home Office resisted and delayed taking action. Children in Calais and elsewhere in Europe – including those known to have family in this country – have been abandoned and at risk from people ready to exploit their urge to reach the safety and support of family. And children have died.

The unpalatable truth is that the motivations behind the loudest calls for the use of unreliable technologies stem from the same xenophobia, racism and hatred that has been so especially visible over recent months.

The urgency with which many now press for distinguishing between a teenager and a young adult, is the same urgency expressed previously for other distinctions — between refugees and other migrants. Between people who have fled Syria and those who have escaped other conflicts and brutal regimes (particularly in Africa). And between those notionally waiting patiently in refugee camps far away for the miniscule chance of resettlement to come their way and those driven to take their futures into their own hands by attempting a dangerous journey to safety.

Of course, not all these distinctions are without relevance. But those who press for them are not genuinely interested in the differences. They are interested either in playing to the gallery or in finding excuses for shirking rather than sharing the responsibility for providing a place of safety for those driven from their home by conflict and persecution.

Ask yourself: if you really cared about the safety of children in harm’s way, would you be more worried about possibly providing safety to a young adult at similar risk than leaving many more children in squalor and vulnerable to traffickers and abusers? Indeed, if you cared about your country helping people in need of safety, would you call for that hospitality to be closed to adults – including women and men with family here in the UK? 

Steve Symonds, Director of Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant programme.

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