Asylum age assessments are unethical

Bridget Chapman
Tuesday, February 1, 2022

The Home Office is clearly ramping up the use of age assessments for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, making inflammatory suggestions that predatory men are abusing the system by pretending to be children, and talk of new “scientific” methods of determining age.

“If there are ‘scientific methods’ of ascertaining age, then surely we should be using them”
“If there are ‘scientific methods’ of ascertaining age, then surely we should be using them”

I am a qualified teacher and I work for a refugee charity that supports young asylum seekers. I have worked there for seven years and before that, I spent more than 10 years at London secondary schools where I worked with young people aged from 11 to 18, many of whom came from refugee and migrant backgrounds. 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 17 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 it has never happened. I am saying that I’ve never met someone I thought was doing that and I have worked with many hundreds of young people in this cohort. I have however met dozens of vulnerable young people who have been told they are adults rather than children and who have been emotionally distressed and put at serious risk as a result.

Sadly, not much has changed since Coram Children’s Legal Centre produced its 2013 report Happy Birthday? Disputing the ages of children in the immigration system in which it stated: “While there are some cases where there is genuine uncertainty over age, too many children have been unnecessarily age disputed, because of a default ‘culture of disbelief’ among some social care and immigration professionals. There is also sometimes a lack of understanding of different cultures and what the expectations of children in those cultures are.”

I have dealt with dozens of young people distraught because they were disbelieved and many who have become suicidal because of it. I have had phone calls from young people placed in adult settings who were terrified. Getting this wrong is serious and we cannot risk one child being wrongly assessed as an adult and placed at safeguarding risk as a result.

If there are “scientific methods” of ascertaining age as the Home Office claims, then surely we should be using them. The problem is that there is no way of accurately deciding a young person’s age. No matter how many times the Home Office talks about “scientific methods”, they just don’t exist. In fact, as the Coram Children’s Legal Centre states: “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.”

I have previously written at length about this issue and tried to pull apart why the claims from the Home Office about age assessments are so deeply problematic. I highlight evidence which I think clearly shows that the press releases coming out of the Home Office are being, at best, economical with the truth.

So how should those of us working with this cohort of young people respond to a clear push from the Home Office to use age assessments more widely and, arguably, punitively?

Many of the people involved in this process will be social workers who signed up to a code of ethics. I would urge them to go back over that code and ask themselves if it is compatible with what they are being asked to do. If they believe what they are being asked to do is discriminatory, doesn’t take account of diversity or if it causes harm, then they need to consider if it is something they are able to continue with.

For my part, I will do all I can to continue to highlight where I think children are being placed at risk. We should all do the same.

Bridget Chapman is a refugee charity worker

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