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Child asylum seekers are caught between the Home Office and cash-strapped councils

Already subject to invasive assessments, minors may now be at risk of deportation to Rwanda.

By Samir Jeraj and Michael Goodier

Beatrice* is a fairly normal 16-year-old. She likes watching films, meeting friends and walking in the park or going out to eat. She has a warm and infectious smile that is a constant throughout our WhatsApp video call. But unlike her peers, Beatrice is fighting a legal battle to prove she is a child.

When unaccompanied children arrive in the UK to seek asylum they are given an initial age assessment at the border if border officials believe them to be over 18 and without documents to prove their age. Those assessed as children are taken into care by the local council, though in practice some are placed in foster care or children’s homes in other parts of the country. With the south-east coast a major point of entry for asylum seekers, many have ended up under the care of Kent County Council.

But assessments can be contested; many are wrongly assessed as adults and become “age disputed”. While that is in process, these children can be put in adult asylum seeker accommodation and can spend months trying to prove their age to the Home Office and local councils.

“I came to the UK because I was told it is the safest place and my human rights would be protected,” Beatrice, originally from East Africa, tells Spotlight. “I am here to claim asylum because it is not safe for me to stay back home”.

Beatrice arrived in the UK in 2021. In her home country, she says, her father was arrested because of his political beliefs and an older sibling of hers was killed. Beatrice’s two other siblings left the country because it was too unsafe to stay. She followed with their mother, but they were separated on the way. Beatrice ended up in the UK by herself. On the way she experienced sexual violence and was trafficked to the UK, leaving her vulnerable and with mental health issues.

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“I have lost contact with my mother and my two siblings. I don’t know where they are. I also don’t know what has happened to my father. I think about them all the time,” she says.

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Beatrice has pictures of her birth certificate and student ID card to show her age, but she says these were ignored and not taken into account when she got to the border. Classified as an adult, Beatrice was placed in hotels with adult asylum seekers, mainly men, rather than being taken into care as a child. Freedom of information requests by the BBC have revealed that 116 child asylum seekers went missing from hotels between July 2021 and August 2022.

Data collected from 64 local authorities by the Helen Bamber Foundation, a human rights charity, shows that in 2021, 562 young people were referred to children’s services having been treated as adults and placed in detention or adult accommodation by the Home Office. Of those, 413 (73 per cent) were found to be children after an additional assessment.

Data from the first three months of 2022 indicates that those numbers are increasing: 211 individuals referred to children’s services have been treated as adults and placed in detention or adult accommodation by the Home Office – and of those, 142 (67 per cent) were found to be children upon further assessment.

Beatrice was assessed at the Kent Intake Unit, which has recently been criticised in a report by the chief inspector of prisons for resembling a “hospital waiting room”. In a process found unlawful by the High Court in January 2022, hundreds of children, including Beatrice, were detained and age assessed by Home Office-employed social workers in under an hour and without an appropriate adult being present to support them. The judge said the process lacked “essential safeguards”.

[See also: The Policy Ask with Adam Lent: “You can’t rip resources away from councils and claim to have a moral compass”]

Beatrice remembers her interview. “I was made to feel I was not welcomed here, and I was made to feel all the trouble I had on my journey and in my country wasn’t true. I was asked so many questions repeatedly; no matter what I say I was made to feel I was not telling the truth. I felt helpless,” she says.

Available data shows that the Home Office is increasingly disputing the age of asylum seekers who claim to be children. According to official figures, there were 2,761 disputes in the 12 months to April this year – up from 907 in the year to April 2021.

When she was moved to a hotel in Hackney, Beatrice contacted a local charity, who helped her to go to the council for help. Councils are responsible for children in their area and in this context are expected, if requested, to form their own view on age, independently of the initial age assessments carried out at the border. The local authority did this and initially placed Beatrice in foster care. However, six months later the council decided Beatrice would need to undergo a “Merton-compliant age assessment”, which involves a series of what can be intensive interviews to reconstruct life events and test the subject for inconsistencies in order to establish their age.

The reasons for the council carrying out the additional assessment remain unclear, her legal representative explains. “They haven’t really justified or explained to Beatrice why they [Hackney council] dispute her age other than the fact there’s been this Home Office assessment [at the Kent Intake Unit],” said Alex McMahon, from Osbornes Law solicitors.

The guidance on Merton-compliant age assessments says they are not to be used in every case and that they need to be justified by there being “significant reason” to doubt the young person’s age. McMahon believes that between the photos of Beatrice’s birth certificate and ID, which corroborate her claimed age, and testimony from her GP, teachers, counsellor and foster parent, there may be no need to subject her to further assessment – especially given her significant vulnerability and concerns for her welfare.

“At the very least, Beatrice should be told why an age assessment has been deemed absolutely necessary, despite these other sources of information or evidence,” McMahon told Spotlight.

Responding to Beatrice’s case, Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, deputy mayor and cabinet member for education, young people and children’s social care at Hackney Council, said: “When the Home Office questions an unaccompanied asylum seeker’s age, we make our own independent assessment, and share this outcome with the Home Office.”

She added that the process is applied “fairly and sympathetically” and means they can safeguard all children they look after. “We also want to ensure we have the best long-term arrangements in place for the asylum seeker, such as care and education, while not jeopardising any future claims for asylum,” she added.

Hackney Council has also it has made a referral to the National Referral Mechanism – the government’s framework for identifying and helping potential victims of modern slavery – to support Beatrice’s asylum claim as a survivor of trafficking.

[See also: General practice is in crisis – and the government is failing to act]

The prospects for children like Beatrice to find safety in the UK are only diminishing. Under the government’s Rwanda deal, which applies to asylum seekers arriving from January 2022, children in Beatrice’s position could be deported to the African nation if they are misclassified as adults. MPs were warned of this risk by the Refugee Council during the Home Affairs Select Committee hearings on the Rwanda deal in July.

“The fact that children could be removed without having proper age assessments is quite terrifying,” said Hannah Marwood from Care4Calais. The charity currently has six child clients who are at risk of removal to Rwanda. The “notice of intent” letters received by people in detention give them seven calendar days to respond, which makes it practically very difficult when some children have not disclosed their age at this point. “One individual that I was speaking to, it took a week or two for him to disclose the fact that he was underage to me. He was incredibly scared,” she said.

Home Office figures show 62 per cent of child asylum seekers have had their ages disputed in the last year – the highest proportion since comparable records began in 2010. What used to happen around 25 per cent of the time is starting to become a norm.

A significant number of those disputes eventually go on to be accepted as children. The pandemic saw this proportion drop to around 30 per cent – but, according to data for the latest quarter, more than half of age-disputed asylum seekers were found to be children.

The age assessment system is being reformed, with a new National Age Assessment Board being brought in by the Home Office. This would take referrals from local councils or provide the Home Office with the means to dispute their age assessments. Refugee charities have voiced their concern that it would undermine social workers in local councils. The Home Office is also considering using nominally scientific methods for determining age, such as bone-density scans and X-rays, despite concerns from professionals that these are not accurate.

“Sending unaccompanied children to Rwanda is absolutely wrong in principle and breaches international conventions,” Lord Alf Dubs told Spotlight. Dubs came to the UK as an unaccompanied child refugee himself, in 1939, fleeing Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. “Certainly, my knowledge of age assessment is that it is a very unsatisfactory and inexact experience,” he said.

Dubs said the policy has lacked proper scrutiny. “The current [asylum] legislation is a shambles and no one can be confident that children will not be swept up in it, which would be truly shocking,” he said.

The Home Office has said that “No one will be sent to Rwanda if it is not safe to do so. Adults passing themselves off as children is a serious safeguarding risk.” They added that where there is “no credible evidence” for someone’s age, a thorough age assessment process will be followed, and that person will be treated as though they are a child until a decision has been made.

Whether the Rwanda policy will be continued under the new Home Secretary, Grant Shapps, is another question. He is seen as more liberal that his immediate predecessors, but, during a tumultuous period in the wake of the Prime Minister’s resignation, it is doubtful that the political will exists for him to prioritise the reversal of a headline Tory policy on immigration.

Beatrice, meanwhile, continues fighting for her rights. Foster care and stability have proved transformative. “I am very happy here, I feel safe and I have been attending school. I will be starting full-time education in September. I have met some friends that are my age group at school. I meet with them sometimes,” Beatrice said. Her sessions with a counsellor have helped, and her mental health has started to improve. “I think that when a young person comes to this country, instead of saying ‘We don’t believe you’, they should allow that person to have the opportunity to stay in a safe place and adjust,” she said.

* Name has been changed

[See also: Councils will crumble under Jeremy Hunt’s spending cuts]