At the Refugee Council, we support hundreds of children every year who arrive to the UK seeking safety. One of the issues many of these children face is being disbelieved about their age. Children who are age-disputed go through an adult asylum system, meaning they don’t have access to the protection and care that a child in the UK should rightly be offered. These children are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, risk being detained, and some even go missing.
Not all children have documentation to evidence their age and some don’t even know their own birthday. It is therefore imperative that the process of determining a child’s age is robust and that children are safeguarded throughout, regardless of the assessment methods that are used.
On 10 January, the interim Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee (AESAC) published its report on scientific methodologies that might assist with assessing the age of separated children whose claimed age is disputed and supplement the existing, Merton-compliant method of age assessment.
The interim committee was asked by the Home Office to advise on methods that could be implemented within 12 to 18 months as a means to support the existing Merton-compliant process. Its report focuses on biological methods utilising dental and skeletal development records for the assessment of age.
The report makes several important findings about the scientific methods for age assessments—an issue that has been very polarising and seen as unethical by many, including the Refugee Council:
- The interim committee recognises the importance of upholding care standards so that children have age-appropriate provisions in terms of their placement and education, and to meet their health needs.
- It recognises major safeguarding issues when minors are incorrectly assessed as adults and so inappropriately placed in adult facilities where they may be at risk. Therefore, they recommend that the methods used to assess age are as robust, repeatable and accurate as possible. They advocate for a triage approach with the methods to be combined depending on the sex and claimed age of the person being assessed.
- It highlights the difference in the timing of maturation between males and females and stresses that there are many factors that can have an impact on timing, such as socioeconomic factors. As a result, an age range (as opposed to providing specific age) is usually presented, taking into account factors including ethnicity and socioeconomic impact. This issue can be potentially critical in relation to children who claim asylum and have experienced complex trauma.
- The interim committee stated that there is no method, biological or social worker-led, that can predict age with precision. Therefore, biological assessments of age should consider whether the age claimed by the young person is ‘possible’ rather than be used to answer the specific question of how old that person is or whether they are under or over 18 years of age.
- Importantly, the interim committee proposes assessing whether that range of ages encompasses the child’s claimed age, and reporting whether the claimed age is possible rather than assigning a specific age or age range.
- There may be many reasons why a child may choose not to give consent for biological age assessments that are not linked to the concealment of chronological age.
- Additionally, the committee is clear that any methodology used for the assessment of age should respect and prioritise the health and wellbeing of the individual, upholding their dignity and right to choose, and minimising any health risk, whether physical or psychological, to the individual being assessed.
- Finally, the interim committee made several recommendations calling for more research and assessment of the use of age-determination methods, including the potential impact of biological age assessment on those with protected characteristics.
Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said:
“We welcome the interim committee’s confirmation that scientific age assessments are not a stand-alone solution, that they are not risk-free, and that they should be used with extreme caution alongside other methods rather than on their own.
The interim committee has correctly recognised that children may have many reasons not to give their consent for biological age assessments that are not linked to the concealment of their age. This finding mirrors the experience we have at the Refugee Council when we support children who are age-disputed.
“These children simply want to start rebuilding their lives after the traumatic experiences they went through. They put their trust in us hoping they will get the support they need—it’s vital that they are safeguarded and provided the care that they need as they go through the system. The government must not ignore the committee’s findings.”