The UK’s new migration policy, which advertises new “scientific methods” for distinguishing adult refugees from children, could still result in the deportation of unaccompanied children to Rwanda as experts say there exists no medical or psychological test which can unequivocally state someone’s age.
The Nationality and Border Bill, set out by the Home Secretary Priti Patel, says any adult refugee entering the UK illegally will be flown to Rwanda where their asylum claims will be considered.
Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, refugees under the age of 18 must be provided with protection from the government, given shelter in a foster family and assisted to enter education as soon as possible.
The problem is: Many asylum seekers who come into the UK have no way to prove how old they are – and, sometimes, they don’t know themselves. This may be due to the loss or destruction of official documents in conflict and displacement, but also to the fact that certain countries like Afghanistan do not automatically provide their citizens with birth certificates. Finally, certain cultures simply do not celebrate birthdays.
Because of these uncertainties, many fear adult refugees could just claim to be children to receive better treatment from the UK’s asylum system.
In 2021, 3762 unescorted children claimed asylum in the UK, but members from local councils and the country’s Border Force disputed 2517 of these claims, ordering for the asylum seeker’s age to be assessed.
In the UK, these assessments are currently based on a series of interviews during which local government caseworkers observe the refugee’s physical appearance and behaviour for signs of maturity that would contradict their claims to minor status. But what counts as a sign of maturity essentially comes down to the assessor’s subjective criteria.
According to Home Secretary Priti Patel, as many as “two-thirds of age dispute cases have found that the individual claiming to be a child is actually over the age of 18.” She added: “I am changing UK laws to introduce new scientific methods for assessing the age of asylum seekers to stop these abuses and to give the British public confidence that we will end the overt exploitation of our laws and UK taxpayers.”
Health authorities, charity workers as well as forensic scientists are a lot less confident about the alleged number of adult refugees disguising themselves as children.
Several charity workers and lawyers have accused caseworkers of using pseudo-science to justify their ruling over an asylum seeker’s age. In the past few years, several lawsuits were brought against the UK’s Home Office as it was found that the authorities labelled children refugees as adults based on scientifically insubstantial and morally dubious grounds.
The New Scientist reports on the case of Jerome (whose name has been changed to protect his identity) who came to the UK in 2020 aged 16. He had no official documents to prove his age and underwent four different interviews at the issue of which social workers claimed he was lying and probably aged between 19 and 22.
The documents they produced to justify their conclusion stated that his skin didn’t “look youthful,” and that his broad shoulders and pronounced Adam’s apple were signs he had likely “completed puberty.”
To support their claim that broad shoulders were a sign of adulthood, the caseworkers’ report referred its readers to an online guide on how to draw a human body.
“It’s complete pseudoscience,” says Jerome’s independent charity social worker.
Moreover, these statements about asylum seekers’ allegedly adult features are often accompanied by pseudo-ethnographic considerations that add racist bias to the many reasons why age-assessment methods can’t be trusted.
For instance, another charity worker (named Bob in the New Scientist’s article) reported about a case where a teenage girl from an East African country was told she couldn’t be 17 because her hips were too wide for teenage women from that region.
“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].”
Telling the difference between adults and children is a lot harder than we think
Last January, the Home Office commissioned a scientific committee to investigate alternative “scientific methods” to assess someone’s age. Three main techniques are currently under scrutiny: dental X-rays, X-rays of the wrist bone, and blood tests.
Dental tests are conducted under the assumption that a person’s teeth mature at a constant rate, except for the third molars – or wisdom teeth – which tend to reach their full maturity at the age of 20.
The British Dental Association (BDA), however, has called the method “inaccurate” as children as young as 16 can possess fully developed wisdom teeth, while in some people, they never mature at all.
Eddie Crouch, a member of the BDA, said: “Dental age checks fail basic standards on accuracy and ethics. If ministers go down this path, it seems inevitable that some child refugees risk being handed a one-way ticket to Rwanda.”
X-ray scanning of a person’s wrist bone is no more reliable. A paper published on 15 March by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology said the method did not take into account the state of malnourishment in which asylum seekers frequently find themselves, and how it could affect bone density.
Furthermore, the British Medical Association (BMA) has recalled that exposure to X-rays during the scanning can present a risk to the patient’s health: “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 Zoë Greaves, a member of the BMA.
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The scientific committee is also looking into whether DNA methylation – the chemical modification of DNA which occurs throughout a person’s life, and whose biomarkers are found in blood and saliva – could be used to determine someone’s age with more accuracy. However, Eugénia Cunha at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, who studies this method, disapproves of its use on migrants as the results “aren’t accurate enough.”
In the case of refugees, the coming into play of extreme stress factors can make it even more difficult to differentiate adults from children as traumatic events can modify a child’s organism, causing it to age faster. Various studies have shown that post-traumatic stress, for instance, can accelerate DNA aging, while chronic stress speeds up cellular aging. It has also been found that children who have been sexually abused reach puberty earlier than other kids.
The new asylum scheme raises significant ethical issues
Solutions exist to limit the risk of deporting vulnerable children because of flawed age assessments. For Jo Schofield, founder of the Immigration Social Work Services, the training of social workers need to incorporate trauma-informed practices and address the generalised culture of disbelief that exists amongst caseworkers.
But a much simpler solution would consist in dropping the Nationality and Border Bills and its offensive deportation plans and putting actual effort, resources, and expertise into developing efficient and ethical asylum policies.
Joel Budd, a social-policy editor at The Economist, said in a recent podcast: “Britain has for many years tried to be unwelcoming to asylum-seekers. It has cut their per-week subsidies. It has banned them from working for very long periods of time. It’s forced them to wait months and months and months before their claims are heard.”
“But this is something entirely new,” he added about the proposal. “It’s being done to try to deter people from trying to make the journey at all.”
Analysing the justifications invoked by the British government for this extremely harsh policy, notably that they are trying to save lives from dangerous crossings and human trafficking, Joel Budd brought attention to the simple solutions the UK government seems to purposefully ignore out of unwillingness to hear asylum claims at all:
“I think the British government needs to be clear and honest about what it really wants to achieve. If it wants to prevent death in the Channel, there is actually quite an easy way of doing that: simply to allow asylum seekers in Northern France to apply for asylum in the UK. Or Britain could issue some kind of humanitarian visa giving permission to come to Britain in order to claim asylum.”
In the future, as the effects of climate change intensify and political instability spreads, the number of asylum seekers will likely rise. As discussed in an earlier Impakter article, it is crucial that the UK and European governments prepare to welcome more migrants and start working on efficient, ethical, and supportive asylum policies.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: A rubber boat carrying around 50 migrants and refugees arrives from Bodrum in Turkey to the Greek island of Kos in the early hours of the morning. Almost 900,000 migrants arrived in Greece back in 2015. Featured Photo Credit: Christopher Jahn/IFRC/Flickr.