Young enough?

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How do you verify the age of child asylum seekers?

An MP has suggested adults could be posing as teenage asylum seekers to gain entry to the UK. But how do officials go about verifying the age of child migrants?

“These don”t look like “children” to me. I hope British hospitality is not being abused,” wrote Tory MP David Davies on Twitter on seeing photographs in the media of 14 male migrants mainly from Syria and Afghanistan who have been allowed into the UK to join their families.

The UKIP MEP Jane Collins also tweeted to say those arriving from the Jungle camp in Calais – said by the Home Office to be aged between 14 and 17 – “look very mature for their age”.

But the Home Office says it works closely with the French authorities to establish whether any children are eligible to come to the UK before they arrive.

Under the EU-wide Dublin Regulation, unaccompanied child asylum seekers can ask for their claims to be heard in the UK if they have close relatives in the country.

“All available sources of relevant information and evidence should be considered, since no single assessment technique, or combination of techniques, is likely to determine the applicant”s age with precision,” states government guidance.

“On age we use a number of determining factors,” explains a Home Office spokesman.

These include whether the asylum seekers have provided credible and clear documentary evidence proving their claimed age and that they have a “physical appearance or demeanour which does not strongly suggest they are significantly over 18 years of age”.

He added: “We also ensure that we meet our safeguarding obligations as first responders who identify potential child trafficking and child slavery victims in the UK.

“We are trying to assess they are definitely not an adult.”

Family circumstances

The Refugee Council is concerned by media coverage questioning the appearance of those admitted to the UK on Monday.

Judith Dennis, policy manager at the charity, said: “It is not possible to judge how old someone is by looking at them, and most people understand that teenagers” appearances vary widely.

“The agencies involved in this exercise will have the safety of all children in mind and we would ask that the privacy of these vulnerable young people is respected.”

The age of the asylum seekers, however, could be scrutinised by other organisations at a later date.

Separate rules used by local authorities to assess the age of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children before providing accommodation or support needs to be signed off by two social workers.

“In general, the decision maker must seek to elicit the general background of the applicant, including the applicant”s family circumstances and history, educational background, and the applicant”s activities during the previous few years,” it says.

“Ethnic and cultural information may also be important. If there is reason to doubt the applicant”s statement as to their age, the decision maker will have to make an assessment of the applicant”s credibility, and he will have to ask questions designed to test the applicant”s credibility.”

Medical tests “intrusive”

Another way to determine age is by a medical examination – Mr Davies, MP for Monmouth, has reportedly said anyone looking to come to the UK as a refugee child should be made to take a dental test to better establish their true age.

But dental evidence is said not to be totally reliable, with experts pointing out it is possible to wrongly estimate someone”s age by up to two years when making an estimate based on such criteria.

Clinical tests are not used by the Home Office to assess age, with its spokesman saying they could be considered “intrusive”.

Image caption
The 14 boys were taken to the Home Office in Croydon after arriving in the UK on Monday

The Royal College of Paediatricians, meanwhile, says “age determination is extremely difficult to do with certainty because it is an inexact science where the margin of error can sometimes be as much as five years either side”.

“Similar care is required when considering assessments of bone-age involving X-rays… where variations may be due to differences in the timing of the onset of puberty and skeletal maturation, which may themselves be affected by illness, nutrition and ethnic variations,” says the government guidance.

However, it also cautions against accepting medical evidence in support of a claim by child asylum seekers themselves.

“If an applicant submits a report written by a practising consultant paediatrician that concludes the applicant is or may be under 18 years of age at the time of the application, this must be fully considered alongside any other relevant evidence and given appropriate weight,” it says.