Fear of X-ray age tests in UK ‘may force child asylum seekers to flee’

Children seeking asylum in the UK may run away and disappear because of fears of being subjected to X-rays and bone scans to verify their ages, human rights campaigners have said.

In a measure introduced to parliament the Ministry of Justice said it would authorise medical tests to help determine the ages of young asylum seekers. The Home Office will then use the tests, consisting of X-rays of the teeth and wrist bones as well as MRI scans of knees and collar bones, as part of the age assessment process.

Should a young person refuse to undergo these tests, the Home Office says it will damage their credibility when their age is assessed. The measure is expected to come into force next year.

Maddie Harris, of Humans For Rights Network, which works with young asylum seekers who are often age-disputed, has criticised the measure. She said: “The introduction of scientific age assessments poses serious and acute risk to children seeking asylum in the UK. This is invasive and will create immense fear among children.

“To introduce such methods violates the right of a child by threatening them with the fact that to refuse a scientific assessment will automatically classify them as an adult.

“It is our view that this will result in children leaving accommodations and care settings, forcing them into harmful exploitative situations due to fear of undergoing these scientific procedures.

“We have spoken to colleagues elsewhere in Europe who inform us that children often leave child protection if threatened with these assessments, many go missing.”

The Home Office insists many adult asylum seekers are pretending to be children but recent freedom of information data from 70 local authorities obtained by charities suggests that two-thirds of children – 867 out of 1,386 – deemed to be adults by the Home Office were later confirmed to be children.

Children wrongly classified as adults could be placed alone in unsupervised accommodation alongside adults they do not know, or wrongly placed in adult immigration detention centres. Some children as young as 14 have been forced to share rooms with unrelated adults.

The warnings over age verification checks came as a judge criticised the Home Office for using an article from the shaving company Gillette, about the age at which individuals start shaving, as part of the its evidence that an Afghan asylum seeker was much older than he said he was.

The judge said the Gillette article “takes the [Home Office] report nowhere”.

As of February 2021, 22 EU countries were using at least one type of medical age assessment. A Council of Europe report warned that scientific tests on children should be used only as “a measure of last resort”. Both the Society of Radiographers and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have criticised these measures. Government advisers on the scientific advisory committee have also raised concerns about the use of X-rays to determine children’s ages.

Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “The reality is that there is no single age assessment method which can determine someone’s age with precision. Supposedly scientific assessments carry medical and ethical risks, with the government’s own scientific advisers saying they should not be widely used. They should only be used with extreme caution alongside other methods.”

Announcing the measures, the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, said: “Implementing the measures within our landmark Illegal Migration Act marks a crucial step forwards in our fight against illegal migration.

“Scientific age assessments are also vital to weed out adults who exploit the system and present serious safeguarding risks. It is only right that the credibility of those who pose as unaccompanied children and refuse to be scientifically age assessed is questioned and held against them as part of the decision-making process.”