Hundreds of refugee children are at risk of abuse and neglect and being denied vital support as a result of ‘hasty and woeful’ decision making that sees the Home Office routinely mistaking them for adults.
These children, who have fled war, conflict, violence and persecution and claimed asylum in the UK, could even be amongst those detained and sent on a one-way ticket to Rwanda as a result of being wrongly treated as adults. The Refugee Council has already had to intervene to stop children who were incorrectly assessed as adults from being detained awaiting removal to Rwanda.
In its report, ‘Identity crisis: how the age dispute process puts refugee children at risk’, the Refugee Council highlights the cases of 233 children it supported last year, 94% of whom the Home Office wrongly judged as adult and housed with other adults. These children had no access to support or education and were at clear risk of abuse and neglect. In over half of these cases, the Home Office claimed these children were at least 25 if not older.
Further evidence from FOI data suggests that it is a widespread issue. In 2021, 450 young people were referred to children’s services having been sent to adult accommodation, three quarters of whom were found to be children. Initial data relating to 2022 indicates that this issue continues.
Refugee Council is concerned that this could be the tip of the iceberg, because Government refuses to publish adequate accurate data to give a true picture of the numbers of children affected.
Instead of transparency, the report says, the Government chooses to repeatedly use misleading statistics that perpetuate a baseless, simplistic narrative of adults coming to this country posing as children.
Many unaccompanied children who arrive in the UK have been through unimaginable trauma, having fled war, violence and persecution, become separated from their families and caregivers and undertaking perilous journeys alone in search of safety.
The charity warns that when children are wrongly assessed as adults it creates a major safeguarding risk, with an immediate threat of being housed in adult accommodation with no specialist support, education or primary caregivers. The long-term impact of this on children is far reaching, leaving them exposed to exploitation, abuse, mental health issues and physical harm.
One of the children the Refugee Council has supported to get their real age determined was Ahmed. Describing his experience, Ahmed says:
“When I am in Dover, I tell them I am 16 years, they don’t believe me, they tell me ‘no, you are 28’ I tell them no, it’s not my real age.
Maybe because I’m tired when I come from France, and I’m afraid of the police. When I come to UK, I’m still afraid, I’m really so afraid. When the police tell me I will give you this age, I can’t tell him no.
Just they tell me we’ll give you this age, bring me to hotel, and I’m still afraid, I stay in my room. I don’t feel comfortable, I’m afraid, I want to live with people like me, I want to go to school. In the hotel I get in a bad situation…”
The Refugee Council arranged for Ahmed to receive a professionally conducted assessment by a local authority social worker, which determined Ahmed’s real age. He says:
“After two weeks they sent some social worker, they visit me, and speak with me, they say this is your age, you are not 28 years, you are 16. And they left couple of weeks, come again, ask me again, and say OK, we will come to take you… It’s better, when I move from the hotel, now I feel better. I will start school in September.”
The report recommends that in order for the Government to ensure that children are no longer lost in the asylum system, it must collect and publish stats which paint a full and honest picture of this process and the outcomes for age disputed young people.
The charity also urges the Government to immediately ensure that no child who has been treated as an adult by the Home Office is threatened with removal to Rwanda until a professional social work assessment has taken place.
Speaking about the report, Enver Solomon, CEO at the Refugee Council, said:
“Every day refugee children are at risk of abuse and neglect because hasty, woeful decision making routinely mistakes them for adults. Time and again the Government claims that people are always lying about their age but the evidence shows they are not. The failure to see the face behind the case is a shining example of the hostile environment in action.
“When dealing with children the highest level of safeguarding must apply. Yet every day, children are getting lost in an asylum system that is making snap, careless decisions about their age. We know from our own work that this has dreadful ramifications for children who simply want to be safe and are alone, with no one to protect them.
“We are very worried that children are going to be sent to Rwanda, which will have devastating consequences for young people who have already suffered so much. New reforms under the Nationality and Borders Act will not help children have their age correctly identified, but instead force more young people to go through potentially harmful and unreliable procedures.
“We urge the Government to immediately take heed of our recommendations and do better by vulnerable children it has a duty to protect.”
Notes to Editor
Data gathered by the Helen Bamber Foundation from a Freedom of Information request, see: https://www.helenbamber.org/resources/reportsbriefings/refugee-and-migrant-childrens-consortium-briefing-government-plans-send
 The Refugee Council takes safeguarding extremely seriously, for which reason names have been changed to protect identities.