Hundreds of lone children seeking asylum in the UK are being wrongly categorised as adults and handed new dates of birth by Border Force within minutes, an i investigation has found.
Some are then being placed in adult detention centres, while others face deportation to Rwanda.
Case records and local authority data compiled by all the major charities working on age assessments, shared with i, show that hundreds of children are being wrongly assessed as adults at the border and later confirmed to be children.
Officials have been accused of changing dates of birth based solely on an initial visual assessment, often lasting just minutes, shortly after the asylum seekers arrive on UK shores, despite the fact some have ID documents showing they are under 18.
At least nine asylum seekers who are now living in children’s care homes have received Rwanda deportation notices, according to the Refugee Council. A further three have also been threatened with deportation, despite claiming to be wrongly categorised as adults.
Dozens of children have also been sent to adult detention centres such as Manston, with aid workers arguing the placements are inappropriate and dangerous.
Research from the Helen Bamber Foundation and Humans for Rights published in April found 850 children were incorrectly treated as adults by the Home Office in 70 local authorities last year.
In total, 1,300 referrals were made to the local authority children’s services departments regarding young people who had been sent to adult asylum accommodation or immigration detention incorrectly, with two-thirds found to be children on further investigation.
The Refugee Council said it had received 376 referrals of age disputes in 2022. The council accepted 229, rejecting the rest predominantly, due to a lack of capacity, and completed 124 cases, of which 123 were found to be children.
Care4Calais said it has supported 959 clients in age disputes since October 2021 and that they continue to receive “daily referrals” for age disputed asylum seekers. It is unclear how many of these were confirmed to be children.
The cases raise new questions about the accuracy of age assessments for asylum seekers, which can also lead to adults being wrongly assessed as children and placed in schools.
The Home Office received 5,010 applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the year ending March 2023, with 70 per cent for children aged 16 or 17. Between 2016 and March 2023, there were 8,611 asylum cases where an age assessment was required – 53 per cent were found to be children.
At the border
Border Force officers are able to classify someone claiming to be a child as an adult if staff members decide they are over 18 based on an initial meeting at the border. Care4Calais, which supports asylum seekers disputing the age given to them at the border, say these assessments can last just minutes, with some clients reporting Border Force asking brief questions. Others say the officers “just write a different date of birth”.
One age assessment document from Dover, seen by i, shows officials use standard issue paperwork to inform the asylum seeker that they have “failed to produce any satisfactory evidence” to prove their date of birth is as they say and will now be processed as an adult.
However, charities accused Border Force of overriding or discounting ID held by children arriving at the border, including both physical birth certificates and digital copies.
The officials can tick a box stating that two members of staff have assessed that the individual’s “physical appearance and demeanour very strongly suggests” that they are “significantly over 18 years of age”. They are then given new dates of birth and processed as adults.
One charity staffer working on age assessments told i that “from my understanding, the new DOB is determined as soon as someone arrives and claims asylum, usually during the screening interview. The decision of a new DOB could be made within minutes. The client would give their name, date of birth, and say they are a minor.”
“From what clients tell me, they are almost always immediately dismissed and either asked a few questions, like, ‘How do you know your age? Do you have ID?’ Or there would be no questions asked, and then the Home Office says something like, ‘You don’t look 16, you look about 24,’ and a new date of birth is given.
“Sometimes clients will be detained overnight whilst being processed so the period of time could be extended. But the clients who receive the letter stating ‘clearly over 18’ will usually have their age determined within minutes. I’ve never known it to be a lengthy process. If the client continues to dispute their age, they’ll just be told to get a lawyer.”
Care4Calais, which has dealt with hundreds of age dispute cases, said the decisions are made “instantly”.
The charity said it had dealt with one Afghan asylum seeker who arrived with documents showing that he was born in 2007, but the Home Office recorded this as 1998, making him a decade older.
Steve Smith, chief executive of the International Refugee Trust, said: “The Home Office is assessing child refugees’ ages on arrival, and even when some of our clients provide ID, including their original birth certificate, they are not immediately overturning their inaccurate age assessment. This disturbing practice is happening far too often and it illustrates a dysfunctional system that doesn’t have the needs of the child at its heart.”
Mr Smith warned that “incorrectly labelling a child refugee an adult places them at risk of harm and neglect. It means placing them in accommodation with adults they don’t know, denying them their right to education and medical support, and could even result in them being placed in detention or processed in a centre such as Manston.”
According to Care4Calais’s age assessment team, an estimated one in four of the arrivals they supported who claimed to be wrongly classed as adults had arrived in the UK with a form of ID showing that they were children, or could access the ID during the asylum process, but these had been overruled by border officers. The Home Office disputed this figure and said that what charities deem as adequate ID may not meet its standards.
Some had physical ID documents, while others had photocopies or photographs of the ID, having been unable to access the document while fleeing their home.
Research from the Helen Bamber Foundation and Humans For Rights found that it was becoming “increasingly common for children to arrive with evidence of their age but for this to either not be requested or dismissed on arrival”.
Others arrive in the UK without documents “because they have either never had them; they have been destroyed, lost or taken; or the child has been forced to travel on false documentation”.
‘I always wanted to go to school. Now I’m stuck in a hotel with people who are older’
Abdul (not his real name) fled his home in Syria at just 10 years old, when the area he grew up in was seized by ISIS. After a years-long journey spending time in Turkey, navigating Europe and waiting for 10 days in Calais, he took a small boat to the shores of Dover nine months ago.
When he was picked up by immigration officials, he told them he was 16 years old, showing them documents and ID on his phone which had a date of birth in 2006. But the border officials looked at him and changed his date of birth to 1 January 2003 – making him an adult.
“At the first age assessment I challenged the age they gave me. I showed them a copy of my ID on my phone. They asked for the original: I said it was in Syria, and they asked me to send it. They said if I could get it, they would redo the age assessment. I couldn’t get it in time. It took five months to get the original birth certificate and ID from Syria. It was a lot of work and cost my family a lot of money. But when I told them I had the documents, they said they wouldn’t redo it,” Abdul, now 17, told i through a translator. A copy of his birth certificate has been seen by i.
With the exception of five days in a processing centre when he arrived, Abdul has been living in a hotel with adult asylum seekers ever since. He is bewildered by the asylum system and desperate to go to school.
“I’ve never been to school,” he said. “We were always on the move. I feel stressed. I’m really struggling, I can’t understand the process. I always wanted to go to school, and instead I’m just stuck in a hotel with people who are older.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s fair: they could do a medical assessment, or accept the documents now I’ve got them – not just go off a visual assessment of what I look like.”
Abdul said he decided to travel to the UK after meeting others making the journey.
“In Turkey, there were people being deported every day back to Syria. I didn’t feel safe. I don’t have any relatives in the rest of Europe. I met some people in Turkey who were going to the UK. And I thought, if I start in the UK, at least I’ll know some people,” he said.
“I just feel disappointed that this is my first experience with the UK Government. I don’t know why they told me to get the document – which cost me a lot – and send it for them to ignore it.”
Children facing Rwanda deportation
The faulty process means that hundreds of children are wrongly being placed into detention centres such as Manston, which was criticised for being overcrowded and unhygienic. Asylum seekers housed in the facility described it as a “filthy prison”, with people sleeping on floors and scabies rife.
Kamena Dorling, head of policy at the Helen Bamber Foundation, said that “every day, charities see cases where children [are] wrongly assessed as adults and are subject to long periods of detention or to living in isolated hotels with unrelated adults, leaving them traumatised and afraid”.
Between September and December last year, the Refugee Council’s Age Disputes team received 92 referrals of children being wrongly categorised as adults inside one single accommodation. The majority of these cases had previously been through Manston.
All of these cases were referred to the local authority and were subsequently accommodated as children, pending the completion of full-age assessments, and many have had their ages definitively accepted.
Maddie Harris, director of charity Humans For Rights which deals with asylum seeker age disputes, said that in the run-up to Christmas last year when Manston was at its most overcrowded, at least 150 of their age disputed clients “spent weeks” in the facility.
“In the current situation, where the Home Office say they are processing people within 24 hours, we had a client the other day who was in a Manchester facility and then in Yarl’s Wood for a couple of days,” she said.
“Pretty much every single one of our clients will spend at least a day detained or waiting in Western Jet Foil and then will go on to spend a day or two in Manston. It’s still detention. It may be within the rules to detain a child for 24 hours but I absolutely anticipate that as the summer progresses, we’re going to start seeing children detained for well over that period of time.”
At least a dozen age-disputed young people have been informed by the Home Office that they are due to be removed to Rwanda, according to the Refugee Council. One of these was living in care, under children’s services, waiting for the outcome of his age assessment case when he was handed the deportation notice.
Five of these young people received notices of intent to Rwanda while they were detained as adults in Immigration Removal Centres, according to the Refugee Council. Four are now in the care of local authorities as children; three have had their ages definitively accepted while the other is in care waiting on a final hearing on his age assessment challenge. One has been moved into adult accommodation with a challenge to their age ongoing.
A further six young people received Rwanda deportation notices while in adult asylum accommodation: four are now in care under children’s services, while two are in adult accommodation as their dispute case continues. No age disputed children they have worked with have so far been put on a plane.
Other charities also said they had worked with young people who claimed to be children facing deportation to the central east African nation.
Ms Harris warned that “unless the situation changes in terms of how age is determined upon arrival, it is absolutely the case that unaccompanied children are going to end up detained indefinitely in the UK and or removed to Rwanda”.
“With the journey that we see in front of us – a ban on asylum and rapid removal – there is no doubt about it: that will happen if things continue this way.”
What guidance do Border Force agents get?
Home Office guidance instructs Border Force agents to give asylum seekers “the benefit of the doubt”, with the individual treated as a child pending further investigation if there is any “uncertainty” about their age.
“A decision should be made to give the benefit of the doubt and treat the claimant as a child until further assessment has been completed if you cannot be sure that the individual is an adult and you have not accepted the claimed age,” the organisation says in its advice to staff dated March this year.
The considerations include physical factors such as height, build, facial features and voice, as well as “demeanour”, including posture, body language, attitude and clothing.
The guidance acknowledges that “there is considerable range of normal physical development during adolescence, even with those who grow up within the same ethnic, social and economic environment” and that demeanour can be altered by culture and life experience.
It also acknowledges that asylum seekers can be aged by their life experiences, such as poverty, poor nutrition, child labour and a journey to the UK with little opportunity for physical health and self care.
Regarding ID, the Home Office guidance states that a document which can be verified as being genuine will usually be sufficient proof of age, but that “caution must be exercised in accepting passports or other identity documents from countries where there is evidence they can be obtained improperly or through ways that provide little evidence the information is accurate” and that “photocopies or faxed copies of these documents will carry considerably less weight.”
In its guidance, the Home Office also acknowledges that wrongful detention “can have a significant and negative impact on a child’s mental or physical health and development” and be “extremely frightening … very stressful and demoralising”, and that there are “serious safeguarding risks of detaining unaccompanied children alongside adults”.
Hundreds of cases examined every year
The true scale of the problem is not clear, with the Home Office accused of being opaque with its data. But Ms Harris, of Humans For Rights, which deals with asylum seeker age disputes, said it was a “prolific problem affecting hundreds, if not thousands, of children”.
Ms Dorling, of the Helen Bamber Foundation, said that the figures not only raise significant concerns about the safeguarding of children but also call into question the Government rhetoric around age disputes.
“Our figures show that the Home Office is incorrectly treating hundreds of children seeking asylum as adults, based on a short visual assessment on arrival in the UK, and placing them alone and at significant risk in unsupervised accommodation and in immigration detention,” she said.
“These figures not only raise significant concerns about the safeguarding of children but also call into question the Government’s claims that nearly half of age disputes are ‘adults posing as children’, currently being used to justify draconian measures in the Illegal Migration Bill, including the reintroduction of child detention.”
Asylum seeker age assessments have long been the subject of contention, with parents questioning how a man clearly over the age of 18 ended up in an Ipswich school in 2018.
In 2022, a double killer from Afghanistan posed as a 14-year-old while entering the UK, leading to calls for the introduction of scientific assessments such as a X-rays to determine age. The British Dental Association has repeatedly opposed the use of dental X-rays to assess age, warning that they are inaccurate.
In 2021, the House of Lords passed an amendment to improve safeguards on the use of such methods on asylum seekers.
Charities working on the cases said the latest revelations warranted an overhaul of the age assessment system.
“The Home Office, as far as I’m concerned, has no place determining the age of individuals,” said Ms Harris.
“What should be happening is that when someone arrives, benefit of the doubt approach should be implemented. Children should be accommodated adequately and supported by experts including social workers whilst investigation into their age is considered. No determination should be made hours after they’ve stepped off a small boat by immigration officials. It should be a supported accommodation until they can be established to be children.”
Ms Dorling added: “There is clearly something fundamentally wrong with Home Office decision-making at the border, and hundreds of children are suffering as a result. What we need now is urgent change to the flawed policy of border officials assessing age on sight; safeguards put in place so that children do not continue to be put at risk; and for the government to abandon plans in the Illegal Migration Bill that would result in more children detained and prevented from legally challenging these terrible decisions.”
A Home Office spokesperson said that it was “strengthening the age verification process” in order to “further protect children and stop abuse of the system”, and to “prevent adults posing as children or children being wrongly treated as adults.”
“The initial age decision process is used as a first step to ensure arrivals are routed into the correct process,” the spokesperson said. “Where there is sometimes doubt, individuals should be treated as a child pending a comprehensive assessment of their age.”
The Home Office has launched a decision-making function, the National Age Assessment Board which consists of social workers trained to carry out full age assessments upon referral from a local authority or the Home Office.
i understands the Home Office is also considering introducing scientific age assessment methods to improve the accuracy of decision making.