By Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council
Every day at the Refugee Council we deal with traumatic stories. The family split by conflict, the mother bringing her child to the UK on a boat across the Channel or the thousands left in limbo while they wait, endlessly it seems, for the outcome of their application for asylum.
But there are few stories quite so distressing as those who land on our shores and are told that they are not, as they claim, children and who are then sent to adult accommodation and sometimes to detention centres. In many cases, no one accepts their true age until we get involved.
There are many failing elements of the asylum system that it can at times be overwhelming. But the treatment of these young people, vulnerable and desperate for help and support, takes the breath away.
And it is not just that the system lets them down – it is that the system actively damages them, making them even more vulnerable at the very point at which we should be doing everything we can to support them.
When a young person arrives in the UK, Border Force officials can immediately decide that the individual before them is a child and put them in the care of local authorities. If they don’t know, they can refer a case to others to decide. The problem arises on the occasions when a Border Force official makes a judgment themselves that someone claiming to be a child is in fact an adult, based on first glance and purely on how they look. They are not trained for this, and time and again, they are getting these decisions badly wrong.
What does this mean in practice? It means that hundreds of children are wrongly being judged to be adults, as our report today makes clear. It means children are being placed in hotels for adults who are seeking asylum, raising major safeguarding issues. Councils in many areas of the country are being alerted by alarmed hotel managers and are then having to quickly take these children into their care. This summer, we even had to intervene to stop several children in detention whose age had been disputed from being sent to Rwanda.
And it gets worse. The way the Home Office keeps statistics – or doesn’t – means we just don’t know how many children this might be affecting. This is because the data doesn’t capture age disputed children going through different processes and the final outcome. Government proposals to change the system will remove some of the few safeguards which do exist within the process.
The Government’s selective use of statistics does not present a full picture of the position and is very misleading. Unfortunately, this is the narrative which is often taken at face value. The Government must be transparent about how many decisions its officials make and how many children were put at risk as a result.
One of the most important jobs we have at the Refugee Council is to try to restore balance to the public debate about the asylum system. Three in four Britons back the principle of giving refuge to those fleeing war or persecution. We know too that most of those who claim asylum do so for valid reasons – the number of people granted asylum is at its highest level since 1990. The vast majority come from places like Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea, countries rife with conflict and persecution. Currently there are a number of Albanians coming across the channel too but let’s remember that just over half of claims for asylum from Albania are granted by the Home Office.
Distinguishing between adults and children is not something that can be done quickly; it takes time and expertise to make the right decision. Of course, there will always be some people who claim to be children who are in fact adults. We are not naïve about this. But the reality is that poor quality decisions are resulting in far too many children being wrongly age assessed and being put at risk.
War, conflict and persecution have a devastating impact on the lives of millions of children around the world. It is shocking that we so often allow their suffering to continue once they reach our shores. No child deserves this sort of hostility and neglect. It’s time to take better care of the refugee children who come here alone.
You can read more about this in our new report, ‘Identity crisis: how the age dispute process puts refugee children at risk’