Information from multiple local authorities has revealed that hundreds of asylum-seeking children have been wrongly labelled as adults by the Home Office.
Freedom of Information (FoI) requests revealed that 867 children out of 1386 had been misidentified as adults. The data from 70 local authorities has been compiled in a recent report by the charities Helen Bamber Foundation, Humans for Rights Network and Asylum Aid. The charities explain that these figures are likely to be an underestimate as 29 councils did not respond to the FoI request, not all local authorities collect this data, and many child applicants do not undergo a detailed age assessment.
The misclassification of children as adults can have serious consequences for asylum seekers. As the report notes, it has resulted in children as young as 14 sharing unsupervised accommodation with unrelated adults or being placed in adult immigration detention centres, posing significant risk of harm.
Leading human rights organisations have long criticised the government’s approach to age assessment. Maddie Harris of the Humans for Rights Network remarked on the distressing conditions for many of those concerned: “these children are living in isolated hotels with unrelated adults and are frequently distressed, traumatised and afraid.”
The findings come as the government prepares to debate amendments to the Illegal Migration Bill. While efforts to address safeguarding risks posed by adults pretending to be children will feature in current proposals, the charities’ report says their figures suggest that “in reality there are far, far fewer adults ‘pretending’ to be children than the Home Office claims.”
The amendments include scientific age assessments, treating anyone who refuses the test as an adult. The plans also seek to remove children’s rights to appeal incorrect age assessments and restrict access to judicial review.
The amendments have proved extremely controversial. In January 2023, the government’s scientific advisory committee published a report on using x-ray and MRI for assessing age and recognised the distress that can be caused by such methods and the risk and harm of using ionising radiation. It “recommends that the use of ionising radiation in age assessment should be limited, with the ultimate aim of eradication”. It also said that “there is no method, biological or social worker-led, that can predict age with precision.”