X-rays to check child asylum seekers’ age risk harm and are unreliable, government warned

X-rays to check child asylum seekers’ age risk radiation harm and are unreliable, the government has been warned.

An expert committee commissioned by the Home Office concluded that no method proves a person’s exact age, and that tests proposed by ministers are only able to say if migrants’ claimed age is possible, “rather than be used to answer the specific question of whether they are under or over 18”.

In plans first proposed by Priti Patel last year and now backed by her successor Suella Braverman, the government said it would bring in biological tests for some migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats “to help better protect against adults being treated as children”.

The Home Office said that in more than half of disputed cases reviewed by social workers using existing assessments, asylum seekers claiming to be under 18 were found to be adults, and accused them of lying to benefit from enhanced support and protections.

It convened a committee of experts to advise on potential biological tests, but the resulting report warned that there was “no infallible method for either biological or social-worker-led age assessment that will provide a perfect match to chronological age”.

The committee said the current interview process should still be the main evaluation method, with biological tests “only performed in cases where the claimed age remains in doubt or there is conflicting or insufficient evidence”.

A document published on Tuesday said ionising radiation from X-rays was harmful and should be avoided where possible, after the Society of Radiographers told The Independent its members would refuse to carry out such tests.

President Ross McGhee said services were already “at breaking point” amid huge backlogs, and that X-rays were “not justifiable” for non-medical reasons.

The committee’s report showed that various options, including X-rays and MRI scans of teeth and bones, produced opposing results when applied to the same person - with some tests concluding their claimed age was possible and others suggesting it was not.

Channel migrants who claim they are children are assessed by social workers after initial processing at Manston (pictured) (REUTERS)
Channel migrants who claim they are children are assessed by social workers after initial processing at Manston (pictured) (REUTERS)

While experts concluded that MRI would be the preferred method, they said huge demand on NHS facilities meant the government may have to use commercial suppliers.

They recommended that if the government proceeds with biological age assessment, it should use different measures to produce a ratio balancing whether an asylum seeker’s claimed age or the one assigned by social workers was more likely.

“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,” the report said.

“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.”

Announcing the plans as part of the Nationality and Borders Act last year, Ms Patel accused adult men of “masquerading as children” and putting people at risk in schools.

The report said that while around 500 unaccompanied child asylum seekers claiming support between January and October last year were a “small proportion” of those in the care system, the prospect of people being put into settings inappropriate for their age was a “major safeguarding issue”.

“Cases have shown that incorrect decisions have been made, sometimes with catastrophic consequences, when vulnerable children are inadvertently placed at risk of harm either from adults who are incorrectly assessed as children or when children are incorrectly placed into adult facilities,” the report said.

Experts told the government that asylum seekers must give “informed consent” to any biological tests, and face “no automatic assumptions or consequences” for refusing them.

“There may be many reasons why an unaccompanied child asylum seeker may choose not to give consent for biological age assessment that is not linked to concealment of chronological age,” the committee said.

“Any methodology used for the assessment of age must respect and prioritise the dignity of the individual being assessed and should minimise physical or psychological harm.”

The government said the current process was lengthy and subjective and can result in expensive legal challenges where asylum seekers contest age assessments.

It said that biological assessments, including X-rays and MRIs were already used by several European countries.

A Home Office spokesperson said the department would consider the Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee’s recommendations and set out further details “in due course”.