Sanwar Ali: comments and additional reporting
A Home Office UK immigration policy that has seen child asylum seekers placed in adult accommodation and threatened with deportation is facing legal action. Lawyers say that some children have wrongly been assessed as adults, with the Home Office recruiting its own social workers to carry out age assessments.
Mistakes like these are more likely to happen if the Home Office uses its own social workers. Social workers working for the Home Office may be more interested in being seen to be "tough on immigration" than behaving in an unbiased way. Home Office officials have faced repeated criticism for making unjust decisions.
According to lawyers, UK immigration officers have incorrectly assessed some children to be over the age of 25 on arrival in the UK. People over 25 are not subject to an age assessment and are often placed in detention and face deportation from the country.
Historic cases include a Sudanese teenager who was wrongly held for more than a month and faced being deported when Home Office UK immigration officials falsely assessed that they weren’t a minor. The teenager was eventually referred to children’s services following legal intervention.
Experts have warned that placing children in adult services could be deemed as exploitation and represents a safety risk.
Naomi Jackson, of Social Workers without Borders, said: “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.”
In another recent case, a child was detained for four days before being moved to a hotel with other adults for more than a month and was then transferred into local authority care following the intervention of a charity.
Age assessment changes
Details of children being incorrectly assessed as adults comes amid news that Home Secretary, Priti Patel, plans to change the way that age assessments are carried out. Under the new plans, anyone who appears to be over 18 will be treated as an adult while the assessment process is conducted.
It’s understood that an independent age assessment body will also be introduced to make age assessment decisions instead of councils.
Current government guidance states that age assessments should only be carried out when there is reason to doubt the age an individual claims to be and that they should not be a ‘routine procedure’.
In September 2020, the Home Office hired four social workers to work at the Kent Intake Unit (KIU) – where people who have crossed the English Channel in small boats are processed – following an announcement by Kent County Council that said it wouldn’t take in any more unaccompanied minors. The council reversed its decision four months later.
Social worker guidance
Guidance for the social workers recruited by the Home Office states that they must conduct a ‘short’ age assessment if they deem that an individual claiming to be a child could potentially be an adult.
If from an assessment a person is thought to be over the age of 25, they will be sent to adult accommodation. If not, then a person should be sent to children’s services where a full age assessment is carried out should the local authority deem it necessary.
According to data seen by The Independent, following a Freedom of Information request, 154 age assessments were carried out by the KIU between June and September 2020, 61% of which concluded that the young person was an adult.
Information was also requested on the number of requests to appeal an age assessment decision made by the KIU. However, the Home Office said that there is no right of appeal and individuals must approach the relevant local authority for an age assessment.
However, campaigners have argued that unaccompanied children, most of whom speak very little English and are often traumatised, cannot be expected to approach a local authority if they have been incorrectly deemed to be an adult.
The Home Office is facing legal action amid claims that UK immigration officers have been wrongly identifying young asylum seekers to be over the age of 25 at the point of arrival in the UK.
Ms Jackson said: “The fact that social workers are being employed by the Home Office is particularly contentious. The role of the social worker ought to be to keep children safe and well, not to deliver a political agenda around UK immigration policy.
“This muddying of the social work role undermines the ethical integrity of our profession and is not compatible with our professional standards,” Ms Jackson added.
A spokesperson for the government said: “The age assessment process prioritises getting children the support they need. However, we do know that some adults pretend to be children in order to access more support.”
“When Home Office staff assess age, the threshold is set deliberately high so that only those who are ‘very clearly’ over 18 are assessed as adults, and 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,” the spokesperson added.
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