The department is facing legal action over its new policy of recruiting its own social workers to carry out age assessments on young people when they arrive in the country via small boat, after it emerged a number of children had been wrongly judged to be adults during this process.
Lawyers are also arguing that immigration officers have wrongly deemed a number of children to be over 25 at the point of their arrival on the UK coast, meaning they do not undergo an age assessment at all and have in some cases ended up in detention facing removal from the country.
It comes amid reports that the home secretary plans to change the way age assessments are conducted so that anyone who appears to be over 18 will be treated as an adult while the assessment process is carried out – rather than those who appear to be over 25. She will also introduce an independent age assessment body to make age assessment decisions instead of councils, according to the Daily Mail.
In October, a Sudanese teenager was detained for over a month and threatened with deportation after being wrongly judged to be an adult by immigration officers, before being placed in children’s services following intervention from his lawyer. In another recent case, a child was detained for four days and then moved to a hotel with other adults for over a month, before being moved to local authority care after a legal charity became involved.
Experts say minors who are placed in accommodation with adults are at risk of abuse and exploitation by other residents and staff, and that this constitutes a breach of the duty to safeguard children.
When an unaccompanied child enters the UK to claim asylum, the local authority in which they arrive currently has a duty to assess their welfare needs. Government guidance states that age assessments should only be carried out where there is reason to doubt that the individual is the age they claim, and that they should not be a routine procedure.
There is no definitive, medical test to assess age – it is a social worker’s judgment, based on knowledge of child development and taking account of the young person’s appearance, demeanour and credibility.
In September 2020, the Home Office recruited four social workers to work in Kent Intake Unit (KIU) – where people who have crossed the Channel in small boats are processed – after Kent County Council announced that it would not take in more unaccompanied minors, a decision that was reversed four months later.
Published guidance for the social workers states that they must undertake “short” age assessments if they are of the view that the individual claiming to be a child is potentially clearly an adult. If it is decided from this assessment that they are over the age of 25, the individual will be sent to adult accommodation. If not, they should be sent to children’s services, where they can undergo a full age assessment if the local authority deems it to be necessary.
However, a number of cases have emerged where asylum seekers have been assessed by the social workers to be between 18 and 24, yet have still been sent to adult accommodation – and are later found to be children.
In one case, an individual who claimed to be 16 was assessed as “likely to be 20 years old” by social workers at the KIU, and placed in asylum housing with adults. His lawyers are challenging the decision in court, and a judge has ordered that while the decision is pending, he must be placed in local authority care, saying he has a “strong case”.
Mrs Justice Lang DBE said: “The concern is that the claimant is in hotel accommodation for adults, which is not set up for children or teenagers, and so there is no welfare provision for him, and no safeguards against abuse or exploitation by other residents or staff.”
Martin Bridger, partner at Instalaw Solicitors, who is representing the client and has a number of similar cases, said the operation of the KIU age assessment policy had the potential to “significantly prejudice extremely vulnerable, unaccompanied children in dire need of support”.
Data obtained by The Independent following a freedom of information request to the Home Office shows that 154 age assessments were carried out at the KIU between June and September 2020, 61 per cent of which concluded that the young person was an adult.
The Independent also requested data on the number of requests to appeal age assessment decisions made by KIU, but the Home Office responded that there was no right of appeal, and that individuals must approach the relevant local authority and seek an age assessment.
Campaigners argue that unaccompanied asylum seeking children, who are often traumatised and speak little or no English, cannot be expected to be able do this if they have been incorrectly judged to be an adult.
The Home Office is also facing a legal challenge over claims that immigration officers are wrongly deeming young asylum seekers to be over the age of 25 at the point at which they arrive in the UK.
Lawyers understand that during the four months that Kent County Council was not taking in unaccompanied asylum seeking minors last year, dozens of children were deemed to be over 25 years old by immigration officers at the port, and therefore were not given the chance to be age assessed.
In one case, a Sudanese teenager was assessed to be over 25 at the KIU “in a matter of minutes” despite him insisting that he was under 18, according to his lawyers. He was subsequently transferred to Yarl’s Wood removal centre, before being moved to Harmondsworth and then Brook House removal centres.
While there, the Home Office twice attempted to deport him to Germany on the grounds that he had travelled through the country on route to the UK, but was prevented from doing so both times after lawyers intervened.
The individual was detained for a total of just over a month, during which his mental health is said to have significantly deteriorated and he was placed no suicide watch. During his time in detention he was also identified as being a victim of torture.
On his release, the child was referred to social services who agreed to take him in pending an age assessment, which deemed him to be 17.
Jamie Bell, of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, who is representing the child, said: “We are deeply concerned about the many reports received that children arriving in the UK, upon seeking sanctuary have instead immediately been considered, without evidence or foundation to be adults significantly over the age that they have suggested.
“These failings have had a tremendous impact on the vulnerable children who have sought help in the UK as they are then left alone without appropriate support and they are also at risk of detention and removal.
“And there will be many children out there who don’t have lawyers or charities advocating for them and so are stuck in the adult system.”
Naomi Jackson, of Social Workers without Borders, said the charity had been working with children who had been detained in removal centres and left unsupported in hotels as a result of Home Office staff wrongfully deciding these children were adults at the point of arrival.
“Placing these children in circumstances where they are clearly at increased risk of harm represents a significant breach of the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children,” she added.
Ms Jackson said the fact that social workers were being employed by the Home Office was “particularly contentious”, adding: “The role of the social worker ought to be to keep children safe and well, not to deliver a political agenda around immigration policy.
“This muddying of the social work role undermines the ethical integrity of our profession and is not compatible with our professional standards.”
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said the charity had seen many cases of young people being accommodated with adults due to incorrect age assessments by the Home Office in recent months.
She said these included two young girls who were placed in a hotel with adult males and a traumatised boy placed at Napier barracks, a military site housing asylum seekers and that all three cases were moved to children’s services after the charity and legal representatives intervened.
“These people have been through so much – we need the government to urgently put better checks in place to stop this happening to young girls and boys.” Ms Mosely added.
A government spokesperson said the age assessment process “prioritised getting children the support they need”, adding: “However we do know that some adults pretend to be children in order to access more support.”
They said that when Home Office staff assess age, the threshold was set deliberately high so that only those who were “very clearly” over 18 were assessed as adults, and that where a local authority accepts that an individual might be under 18 it could consider placing them in children’s services pending the outcome of any assessment.