On 21 July 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the following question for short debate:

Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Labour) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure no unaccompanied children are removed to Rwanda because they have been mistakenly assessed to be adults.

1. What is the Rwanda scheme?

On 14 April 2022, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that the UK had signed a joint migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda. This introduced a scheme that would see some asylum seekers who have arrived illegally in the UK flown to Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed there. Those whose claims were successful could settle in Rwanda as refugees, whilst those with unsuccessful claims could be removed from Rwanda to a country in which they have a right to reside.

The government said that the aim of the scheme is to deter asylum seekers from making dangerous journeys to the UK to claim asylum. Such journeys, commonly facilitated by people smugglers, can involve travelling on small boats across the English Channel or illicitly by lorries. Ministry of Defence data suggests that 149 migrants were detected crossing the English Channel in small boats on 13 July 2022.

National and international concerns have been raised about whether the UK-Rwanda scheme contravenes international law and human rights. Further information on this can be found in the House of Lords Library’s briefing ‘Current affairs digest: Constitution (June 2022)’.

2. What are the risks to unaccompanied children?

A number of concerns have been raised by refugees and children’s charities about the potential for unaccompanied children to be wrongly assessed as adults and offshored to Rwanda as part of the scheme.

Media reports said that the Home Office had been accused by some charities of attempting to deport unaccompanied minors to Rwanda. For example, refugee charity Care4Calais has challenged the Home Office on two teenage boys who claimed to be 16-years-old, but who the Home Office believed to be 23 and 26 and had been issued with notices of removal. On 13 June 2022, the Guardian reported the release of three age-disputed children who had previously been declared adults by the Home Office and detained in preparation for removal to Rwanda. The article said it was understood that concerns had also been raised for at least three more detainees.

In a joint letter from several members of the Refugee and Migrant Children Consortium (RMCC) to Home Secretary Priti Patel, the risks of children being incorrectly assessed as adults as part of the Rwanda scheme were raised. The RMCC members said that an incorrect age assessment could have “hugely damaging repercussions on [a child’s] safety and wellbeing”. The RMCC has previously expressed concerns that children placed alone in accommodation with adults with no safeguarding measures are at risk of abuse.

The letter suggested that there were insufficient safeguards in place for children who say that they are children, but who are treated as adults by the Home Office. It said children who had newly arrived in the UK were often unaware of initial age decisions applied by immigration officials:

Although they should be advised of their right to challenge the decision and supported to do so by appropriate legal representatives, in reality we know young people are often given little support. They will not know to challenge an incorrect assessment nor always appreciate the ramifications of such a decision.

RMCC members also accused the Home Office of regularly treating children as adults. They said between July and September 2021, the Refugee Council had assisted over 150 young people into local authority care who had previously been sent to adult accommodation. The letter also referred to data collected from 55 local authorities—obtained from freedom of information requests sent by the Helen Bamber Foundation in May 2022—which showed that more than 450 young people were referred to children’s services in 2021 after being sent to adult accommodation or detention.

With reference to the Rwanda policy specifically, the letter said that children incorrectly assessed to be adults faced “potentially extreme consequences of being removed to a country 4,000 miles away with no further means of redress”. The RMCC consists of over 60 refugee and migrant children support organisations. There were 16 RMCC members that signed the letter, including the Children’s Society, the Refugee Council and Save the Children.

Concerns have also been raised by certain charities and health organisations about the accuracy of age assessment methods. Speaking in a New Scientist article on age assessments, a member of the British Medical Association claimed that there was no medical or psychological test which could definitively state a person’s age.

The alleged use of so-called “sexual maturity tests” on asylum seekers has also been questioned. According to the campaigns manager for anti-trafficking charity Love146 UK, Daniel Sohege, sources have said that sexual maturity ratings have been conducted by police doctors on asylum seekers following arrest. Such tests are understood to be used to assess an adolescent’s physical development in puberty.

The government has not mentioned the use of sexual maturity tests; however, a Home Office spokesperson has said:

Adults passing themselves off as children is a serious safeguarding risk and in almost two thirds of disputed cases from March 2021/22, the person was found to be over 18.

Where a person has no credible evidence of their age, a thorough age assessment process will be followed. They will be treated as though they are a child until a decision on their age has been made.

3. How are age assessments carried out?

The age of a person arriving in the UK is normally established from the documents that they bring with them. However, some individuals, including children, do not always have documentary evidence to support their claimed age.

As part of the UK’s immigration system, age assessments can be undertaken if there is doubt about the claimed age of a person seeking asylum. This is a multistage process that includes social workers carrying out interviews, as well as judging the person’s appearance and demeanour. The complete age assessment procedure is set out in the Home Office’s ‘Assessing age’ guidance.

There were 428 disputes raised on the basis of physical appearance and demeanour in the first quarter of 2022, according to Home Office immigration statistics on age disputes. Of the 255 disputes resolved in the same period, a person was found to be an adult in 126 cases and a child in 129 cases.

4. What has the government said?

Determining the age of a person seeking asylum in the UK is fundamental to the immigration system. As explained in the explanatory notes to the Nationality and Borders Bill, children are entitled to certain benefits under the UK’s framework. This, in turn, can lead to some adults claiming to be younger than they are:

[…] there are a number of incentives for adults to claim to be children. Those treated as children benefit in a number of respects, including the accommodation and support to which they may be entitled, the procedural and substantive treatment of their asylum or immigration claim, the arrangements that would need to be made to secure their removal from the UK (where they do not establish a lawful basis to remain) and the safeguards around the use of immigration detention for children.

According to the government, the determination of age can have significant implications on the person, local authorities, the government and the UK’s immigration system. For instance, safeguarding issues arise when a child is treated is an adult. Similar issues also arise if an adult is wrongly determined to be a child and is placed in accommodation with children to whom they could present a risk.

The government said that treating adults as children also uses up resources and support that would otherwise be provided to other children. For example, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are entitled to the same support from local authorities as any other looked after child in the UK. As such, the Home Office pays local authorities grants to support the care of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

With this in mind, the government has sought to improve processes for assessing the age of those whose claimed age is doubted. For example, it introduced age assessment provisions into the recently enacted Nationality and Borders Act 2022. This included powers for the secretary of state to make regulations that specify scientific methods that can be used to determine someone’s age. Methods could include examining or measuring parts of a person’s body, using imaging technology, and analysing saliva, DNA or other samples.

The Home Office also established the interim Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee in January 2022. The purpose of the committee is to provide advice on how best to estimate the age of a person. There are nine independent members on the interim committee, including the chair Baroness Black of Strome (Crossbench). As the interim committee has been appointed for no more than 12 months, the government is in the process of recruiting a full committee.

According to reports by the media organisation iNews, unnamed sources have suggested that the committee is looking at three possible scientific methods to estimate a person’s age, including dental x-rays, wrist bone x-rays, and DNA methylation (which involves looking at blood or saliva samples). This has not been confirmed by the committee.

Additionally, the government plans to establish a decision-making function in the Home Office, referred to as the National Age Assessment Board (NAAB). The NAAB would contain expert social workers who would conduct full age assessments upon referral from a local authority.

Referring to the Rwanda scheme specifically, a recent written question from Emma Lewell-Buck (Labour MP for South Shields) asked the government what steps it was taking to ensure that age assessments were accurate enough to prevent unaccompanied asylum-seeking children being relocated. The joint Ministry of Justice and Home Office minister, Tom Pursglove, said the government’s announced plans and measures in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 aimed to make assessments more consistent, robust, and would result in higher quality decisions on people’s age.

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