A Government plan to X-ray child asylum seekers to check their age could put them at risk of harm from radiation and cause distress, advisers have warned.
The scientific advisory committee tasked with considering the Home Office reforms – to assess migrants who have crossed the Channel and are suspected of lying about their age – also told ministers and officials no checks would be able to predict how old someone is with “precision”.
Unveiling the proposals last year, then-home secretary Priti Patel said using biological tests would stop grown men “masquerading as children” on their asylum applications.
The Home Office previously described this as a “significant” problem and warned incorrect assessments could also see children wrongly identified as adults and put them at “risk of harm”.
But some campaigners and medical professionals raised questions over whether using scientific methods, which could also include MRI scans, to examine the development of teeth and bones was ethical or reliable.
In a report published on Tuesday, the Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee recommended existing checks – which rely on interviews with social workers – are still used, but could be “supported by biological age assessment”.
The panel of medical professionals, academics, scientists and social workers – led by forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black – stressed the tests should only be carried out in cases where the “claimed age remains in doubt or there is conflicting or insufficient evidence to allow the social worker to assess the young person’s age with confidence”.
According to the group, there is “no method, biological or social worker-led, that can predict age with precision”, so biological checks should consider whether the age claimed by the unaccompanied asylum-seeking child (UASC) 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”.
“It must be accepted that there is no infallible method for either biological or social-worker-led age assessment that will provide a perfect match to chronological age,” the report said.
The committee “recognises the risk and harm of using ionising radiation and recommends that the use of ionising radiation in age assessment should be limited, with the ultimate aim of eradication”.
It also warned the “use of biological assessments in addition to social worker interviews could increase distress”, before urging ministers to assess the impact carrying out such checks could have on lone migrant children.
Any age assessment method used “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,” the report recommended.
The Home Office previously suggested asylum seekers could damage their “credibility” if they refuse to submit to the checks “without good reason”.
But the committee said asylum seekers should give “informed consent” to biological tests and face “no automatic assumptions or consequences” for refusing them, adding: “There may be many reasons why a UASC may choose not to give consent for biological age assessment that is not linked to concealment of chronological age.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, urged the Government not to “ignore” the committee’s findings, adding: “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 Home Office welcomed the report and said it will now “consider the recommendations”, adding that “further details will be set out in due course”.
Using scientific methods to resolve age disputes will “bring a more consistent and robust approach to age assessments and help prevent asylum-seeking adults from claiming to be children, or children being wrongly treated as adults – in turn helping prevent safeguarding risks and stopping abuse of the system”, a department spokesman said.
A Government source said: “The vast majority of our international partners use scientific age assessments and so we welcome this report. This is about ensuring we have a consistent and robust asylum system.”