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UK asylum seeker plan risks deporting children based on flawed science

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An abandoned inflatable boat used by migrants to reach Dover, UK, in 2020

BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

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HEALTH bodies and charity workers fear that the UK government’s plan to send adult asylum seekers to settle in Rwanda, rather than allowing them to settle in the UK, will inadvertently lead to unaccompanied children being deported. This is because, despite the government’s proposed Nationality and Borders Bill calling for “scientific methods” to confirm that child asylum seekers aren’t adults, experts say there is no such way to determine someone’s age.

Age assessments aren’t mere form filling. Unaccompanied children arriving in the UK need to enter education and be found a foster family as soon as possible. There are also fears that adults may claim they are children in the hope of being treated more favourably by the UK’s asylum system.

“There is no medical or psychological test which can definitively state a person’s age”

But many people who flee their home countries can’t prove their age. They may have lost their documentation in conflict, never had a birth certificate in the first place or simply be from a culture that doesn’t celebrate birthdays.

Last year, there were 3762 claims for asylum in the UK made by unaccompanied children, but officials from the country’s Border Force or local councils disputed 2517 of them and ordered an age assessment. Around 60 per cent of these were judged to be at least 18, and so adults.

Such assessments are controversial. Several charity workers and lawyers have told New Scientist that caseworkers are using pseudoscience to help justify their decisions on whether an asylum seeker is a child or an adult. Lawsuits have been brought against the UK’s Home Office in the past few years due to officials judging child asylum seekers to be adults and putting them into hotels unsupervised, without safeguarding measures.

Current age assessments in the UK are largely conducted by local government social workers and are based on a series of interviews with the asylum seeker as well as judging their appearance and demeanour. This process can be subjective and lacking evidence.

“I was so stressed [by the whole process],” says Jerome*, an asylum seeker who arrived in the UK in 2020 with no identification. Jerome says he was 16 when he arrived in the country, but Border Force didn’t believe him.

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After three months and four separate interviews, two social workers claimed that Jerome was lying about his age and judged that he was aged between 19 and 22. New Scientist has seen documents produced by the social workers to justify this assessment. In the “appearance and demeanour” section, they claim that because Jerome’s skin didn’t look youthful, he was unlikely to be 17.

The report also suggests that because Jerome had broad shoulders and a pronounced Adam’s apple, it was likely that he had “completed puberty”. In order to claim that Jerome’s broad shoulders were a sign of adulthood, the report linked to a website that instructs readers on how best to draw the human body.

“It’s complete pseudoscience,” says Jerome’s independent charity social worker*. “It’s medieval.”

But Jerome’s case isn’t unusual. Bob*, a charity worker, says he worked with a 15-year-old asylum seeker* last year who was asked to tell social workers where exactly his body hair was. In another case, a woman* from an East African country was told she couldn’t be 17 because her hips were too wide for teenage women from that region.

Bob also had a case in which the facial hair of an asylum seeker* from a north-eastern African country was taken as evidence that he was over 18 because the assessors judged that men from the region don’t develop facial hair until adulthood. “It’s just plain wrong and racist,” says Bob. “I believe age assessments are one of the most disturbing aspects of the entire asylum system [in the UK].”

Bob says the UK’s new migration plans risk children being wrongly assessed as over 18 and quickly moved to Rwanda. “The Home Office could decide to take the precautionary approach not to remove anyone whose age has been disputed – but I can’t see this happening,” he says. “They’d say that everyone will then claim to be a child at the border.”

The Home Office told New Scientist that it won’t send unaccompanied children to Rwanda. “Everyone considered for relocation will be screened, interviewed and have access to legal advice,” says a Home Office spokesperson. “Decisions will be taken on a case-by-case basis and nobody will be removed if it is unsafe or inappropriate for them.”

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The spokesperson also said the current age assessment method is “very subjective” and that measures put in place through the Nationality and Borders Bill will stop adults who are seeking asylum claiming to be children.

2B1076K xray scan of hand

Wrist X-rays are used for age assessments in the European Union

Marco Ohmer/Alamy

In January, the Home Office launched a scientific committee to look at alternative age assessment techniques. The committee is looking at three main methods, according to a source with knowledge of the matter who spoke to New Scientist on condition of anonymity.

The first method, dental X-rays, works on the assumption that teeth mature at a constant rate and that all teeth, except the third molars – also called wisdom teeth – are fully mature by the age of 20. The technique is used in countries like France and Sweden to assess the ages of asylum seekers.

But the British Dental Association (BDA) has called the methodology inaccurate, saying that children as young as 16 can have mature wisdom teeth, while some people never develop them at all.

“Dental age checks fail basic standards on accuracy and ethics,” says Eddie Crouch at the BDA. “If ministers go down this path, it seems inevitable that some child refugees risk being handed a one-way ticket to Rwanda.”

The second method involves taking X-rays of the wrist bone and comparing the image to the X-rays of other similarly aged people. A briefing note on the topic published on 15 March by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology said the method should be used with caution because we don’t really know how trauma or malnourishment, both common in asylum seekers, may affect wrist bone density.

“There is no medical or psychological test which can definitively state a person’s age,” says Zoë Greaves at the British Medical Association (BMA). “In addition, the use of procedures such as radiographs of bones and teeth to determine age is not only unreliable but also poses a risk [from X-ray exposure] to individuals forced to undergo the procedure.”

“The BMA believes that it is not ethical for doctors to use their clinical skills to take part in an age-assessment process that results in vulnerable and traumatised people being sent to an offshore facility,” says Greaves.

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The scientific committee is also investigating whether DNA methylation can be used to assess a person’s age. This is the chemical modification of DNA that happens throughout our lives and studies have shown that the “biomarkers” of this process, found in blood or saliva samples, can be used to estimate a person’s age. But Eugénia Cunha at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, who studies the technique, says the results aren’t accurate enough to be used in real-world age assessments.

The source with knowledge of the Home Office’s scientific committee says they believe the department intends to go ahead with some of these methods in the coming year, especially dental X-rays. The Home Office didn’t confirm or deny this before publication.

Using these kinds of biological signs to determine age may appear to be accurate and impartial, but they aren’t, says the source. The main benefit is cost. “If you ignore the fact that they get the answer wrong quite a lot of the time, it’s much cheaper than a social worker assessment,” says the source.

So if current age assessments are flawed, and the government’s proposed scientific methods are also unreliable, what is the solution? Jo Schofield has 10 years’ experience conducting age assessments for local councils. She has since set up an independent firm called Immigration Social Work Services in the UK for whenever someone wants to challenge an official assessment.

“I believe social workers can do this work if they are trained properly,” she says. “We do 9-hour assessments which are trauma-informed and give the asylum seeker the benefit of the doubt.” She says budget cuts, a lack of training, overwhelming caseloads and a culture of disbelief have led to social workers conducting age assessments too hastily. Schofield estimates that a properly carried out assessment can cost a few thousand pounds, while those that may have been done incorrectly, resulting in legal challenges, can cost £45,000.

In February, Schofield set up a qualification for age assessment that any social worker can take. She believes that such holistic assessments are the best way to assess a young person’s age. “It just needs to be done properly,” she says.

*names have been changed and specifics left out to protect people’s identities and because legal cases are ongoing

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