Published: 13:39, 05 January 2022
| Updated: 12:43, 06 January 2022
Scientific measures will now be used to determine the age of asylum seekers in a bid to stop adults claiming to be younger than they are.
The measures are being introduced by the Home Office, which wants to put a stop to adult men "masquerading as children" in an attempt to "abuse" the system.
The new measures will include X-ray and CT scans, and MRI imaging to view key parts of the body.
Such practices are already used in other parts of Europe, the Home Office says.
For example, Finland and Norway take radiographs to examine the development of teeth and the fusion of bones in the wrist.
In both countries, two certified experts will carry out the age assessment and must jointly agree on the person’s age.
In France, X-rays are taken to examine the fusion of the collar bone, alongside dental and wrist X-rays, while in Greece, dental X-rays are used alongside social worker assessments.
It comes as nearly 30,000 asylum seekers crossed the Channel in small boats last year in an attempt to reach the UK. This was more than triple the 2020 figure.
During one crossing, 27 people died when a boat capsized.
But many of those arriving and claiming to be children do not have clear evidence, such as a passport, to prove their age.
This can result, the Home Office says, in some people trying to claim they are younger than they are, in order to receive asylum or refugee status in the UK.
In the 12 months up to September 2021, of the 1,696 resolved age dispute cases in which an individual’s claim to be a child is disputed, around two thirds were found to be adults.
Resolving the age disputes can be costly, time consuming and challenging, relying primarily on interviews with social workers.
The Home Office says age assessment going wrong can result in adults being put into children’s schools, or children being treated as adults, in both cases putting children at risk of harm.
For example, in one instance pupils raised alarm at an 'obviously mature adult' joining their class. He was re-assessed to be 10 years older than his claimed age.
A new Scientific Advisory Committee will now be established to provide advice on ways of checking how old an asylum seeker is, as well as a National Age Assessment Board.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: "The Nationality and Borders Bill will end many of the blatant abuses that have led to our immigration and asylum system being abused by those with no right to be in our country.
"The practice of single grown adult men, masquerading as children claiming asylum is an appalling abuse of our system which we will end.
"By posing as children, these adult men go on to access children’s services and schools through deception and deceit; putting children and young adults in school and care at risk.
"It is a fact that two thirds of age dispute cases have found that the individual claiming to be a child is actually over the age of 18.
"I have given more resources and support to local councils to ensure that they apply vigorous and robust tests to check the ages of migrants to stop adult men being automatically classified as children.
"I am changing UK laws to introduce new scientific methods for assessing the age of asylum seekers to stop these abuses and to give the British public confidence that we will end the overt exploitation of our laws and UK taxpayers."
Professor Dame Sue Black, one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists, has been appointed to chair the committee on an interim basis.
It will be made up of a range of experts and look at scientific methods for estimating age, and will be considering their accuracy and reliability, as well as ethical and medical issues.
They will report their findings directly to the Home Office Chief Scientific Adviser to support her in advising Ministers on appropriate scientific methods for age estimation.
Dame Sue Black said: "I am pleased to have been asked to Chair this committee and look forward to the opportunity to provide advice to the Home Office Chief Scientific Adviser on the important issue of scientific assessment of age."
But Bridget Chapman, from the Kent Refugee Action Network, says scientific methods to determine age are not possible.
She said: "There is a constant narrative in the media that we are seeing adults pretending to be children in order to abuse the system.
"Kent Refugee Action Network works with hundreds of people who have arrived as unaccompanied asylum seeking children every year and we rarely if ever encounter this scenario.
"What we see far more often is children assessed as adults and placed into adult accommodation. This is clearly a safeguarding issue.
"The fact is that many children arriving unaccompanied simply do not know their dates of birth.
"In countries like Afghanistan birthdays are not generally celebrated as part of the culture and unless you live in a city you are extremely unlikely to have a birth certificate. In addition the calendar system is totally different there, so the chances of young people being able to give an accurate date of birth on arrival are very slim."
The Nationality and Borders Bill was passed in the Commons in December. It is being debated in the House of Lords today.