The home secretary has called in scientific advisers in a bid to use X-rays and other medical checks on asylum seekers to stop grown men “masquerading as children” on their applications.
The number of adult asylum seekers falsely claiming to be children is a “significant issue”, the Home Office said as it announced it was setting up a scientific advisory committee to get advice on ways of checking the ages of those arriving in the UK.
Last year the department confirmed it was considering using “scientific methods” as part of age assessments on those suspected of lying about how old they are under plans proposed in the Nationality and Borders Bill now being debated by Parliament.
But some campaigners and medical professionals raised questions over whether the measures would be ethical or reliable.
Priti Patel said: “The practice of single grown adult men, masquerading as children, claiming asylum is an appalling abuse of our system which we will end.
“By posing as children, these adult men go on to access children’s services and schools through deception and deceit – putting children and young adults in school and care at risk.
“It is a fact that two thirds of age dispute cases have found that the individual claiming to be a child is actually over the age of 18.”
The home secretary said she was changing UK laws to bring in “new scientific methods for assessing the age of asylum seekers to stop these abuses” and had given councils “more resources and support” so they can carry out “vigorous and robust tests to check the ages of migrants to stop adult men being automatically classified as children”.
Many asylum seekers arrive without documents to prove their age which “can result in some people trying to claim they are younger than they are, in order to receive asylum or refugee status in the UK”, the Home Office said, adding: “This is a significant issue.
“In the 12 months up to September 2021, of the 1696 resolved age dispute cases in which an individual’s claim to be a child is disputed, around two thirds were found to be adults.”
It said resolving such age disputes is “very time consuming, challenging and expensive for local authorities and the Government”.
The process “can be subjective” and can often result in “expensive legal challenges”, costing the taxpayer “hundreds of thousands of pounds”.
Incorrect assessments could lead to men and women being placed in schools and youngsters being wrongly taken into the adult asylum system, which could both put “children at risk of harm”, the department said.
“In one instance pupils raised alarm at an obviously mature adult joining their class. He was reassessed to be ten years older than his claimed age”, it added.
The reforms would bring the UK’s age checking policy in line with some other countries which use scientific methods to look at the development of teeth and bones.
The Home Office said: “Scientific methods are used by most European countries, who primarily use X-ray scans, and sometimes CT scans and MRI imaging to view key parts of the body.”
Asylum seekers could damage their “credibility” if they refuse to submit to the checks “without good reason”, the department warned, but said a new right of appeal would be created to provide a quicker and cheaper way of resolving legal disputes.
Professor Dame Sue Black, described by the Home Office as “one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists”, has been appointed as the interim chairman to the committee which will be made up of medical professionals, academics, scientists and social workers.
The committee will look at a “range of scientific methods for estimating age”, consider their accuracy and reliability, as well as ethical and medical issues, before reporting findings to the Home Office.
A National Age Assessment Board with social workers who can conduct age assessments on behalf of councils, if they do not want to carry out their own checks, will also be established.