The Home Office acted unlawfully in detaining unaccompanied young people for age assessments, the High Court has declared. In a judgment handed down on Wednesday, Mr Justice Henshaw declared a new so called ‘abbreviated’ assessment process ‘inherently unlawful in the sense that it lacks essential safeguards’.
Since September last year, hundreds of unaccompanied young asylum-seekers have been detained upon arrival in the UK and subjected to abbreviated – or ‘short-form’ – age assessments by the Home Office Kent Intake Unit. Such assessments take place in detention, last no longer than an hour, and are carried out in the absence of an appropriate adult.
The judgment has been welcomed by rights groups who have deemed the Home Office assessments deliberately harsh. ‘We have been deeply concerned by the reports that children are being assessed immediately after arrival while they are still exhausted and traumatised by the journey,’ commented Bridget Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network. ‘The consequences of getting this wrong are extremely serious and we have now seen numerous cases of children being placed in adult accommodation where their safeguarding is at risk.’
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, expressed relief that the ‘practice of hasty decisions’ may no longer continue. ‘Children seeking safety arriving alone in the UK are bewildered and frightened. They have been subjected to processes with neither safeguards nor oversight, relying on little more than luck to ensure that someone identifies them as being wrongly deemed adult and helps them access the care they are entitled to. No child should have been faced with disbelief and such appalling practice.’
The unit was introduced in response to Kent County Council’s refusal to take unaccompanied asylum-seekers into care for age assessments, stating that it was at full capacity. Social workers were recruited by the Home Office to conduct age assessments if they were of the view that the young person claiming to be a child may be an adult. These views are formed on physical appearance, acknowledged by the courts as a notoriously unreliable indicator of age.
The claimants – whose identities are protected – challenged guidance for social workers on the basis that it breached the Home Office’s own policy prohibiting the detention of age-disputed individuals. They also challenged the procedural fairness of the abbreviated age assessment process.
The first claimant, known as ‘MA’, arrived in the UK in December 2020 aged 16. He was separated from his mother in France, and spent two days travelling to the UK in the back of a lorry with little air and food. He was detained upon arrival and subjected to a 42-minute-long age assessment at around noon the same day. ‘I had not eaten or drank properly for around two months at this time and I was very shocked and sad about being separated from my mother,’ MA told the Court. ‘I cannot remember them asking whether I was okay because I was just so tired, I only remember being asked many many questions’.
Following the assessment, MA was transferred to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre for three days before being released to adult asylum accommodation in Coventry. He was not provided with a copy of the assessment, nor was he aware that he could challenge its outcome.
Finding in favour of the Claimants, Mr Justice Henshaw declared that ‘the guidance, and the age assessments carried out in relation to the claimants, were not lawful in the particular respects I have identified; and that if and insofar as the Claimants’ detention was lengthened for the purpose of carrying out those assessments, it was unlawful.’
Speaking to the Guardian, a Home Office spokesperson said: ‘We are disappointed by the court’s decision. The government is committed to protecting children and the vulnerable but we cannot allow asylum-seeking adults claim to be children – this presents a serious safeguarding risk. Our Nationality and Borders Bill seeks to improve the challenging age assessment process and will widen the evidence base for social workers to consider when making assessments and lead to better informed decisions.’