Government vows to treat asylum seekers who refuse age assessments as adults

The government is violating recommendations from official advisers by vowing to treat asylum seekers as adults if they refuse controversial biological age assessments.

An expert report commissioned by the Home Office warned that there was “no method, biological or social worker-led, that can predict age with precision” or prove whether someone is under or over 18.

It said asylum seekers must give “informed consent” to any biological tests like X-rays or MRI scans, and face “no automatic assumptions or consequences” from refusing them, adding: “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”.

But on Friday, the Home Office announced that a new amendment to the Illegal Migration Bill would “see age-disputed people treated as an adult if they refuse to undergo a scientific age assessment”.

It said the move was necessary to “increase protections around the safeguarding risk caused by adults pretending to be children”.

According to Home Office figures, 15 per cent of unaccompanied asylum seekers claiming to be children are found to be over 18 and under a third of UASC applications (7,900) have been disputed since 2016.

The amendment was one of several changes to the controversial Illegal Migration Bill demanded by a right-wing group of Tory MPs, which also included moves to curtail the powers of British courts to prevent deportations and allow ministers to ignore injunctions by the European Court of Human Rights.

The government is also changing the law to give immigration staff powers to search for and seize phones from small boat migrants “to help them assess whether someone has the right to be in the UK”.

It comes after the Home Office admitted carrying out the practice illegally between 2018 and 2021, in a secret policy only revealed after asylum seekers launched a legal challenge.

The High Court heard that British authorities kept their mobile phones for several months, leaving them unable to contact their loved ones during a period where one of the men feared his wife and seven-year-old daughter had been killed.

The Illegal Migration Bill aims to allow the government to detain and deport people who arrive on small boats without considering their asylum claims, but there are no return agreements in place with any countries other than Rwanda and Albania.

Tory rebels and opposition MPs will be fighting for concessions on child asylum seekers, pregnant women and modern slavery victims when the law returns to the House of Commons next week.

The government has conceded to an amendment tabled by Conservative MP Tim Loughton forcing it to announce new safe and legal alternatives to Channel crossings within six months of the bill passing.

Amendments also include a commitment to consult local authorities on their capacity to support asylum seekers, following a wave of opposition to the use of hotels and attempts to take over large military sites for asylum accommodation. 

A High Court hearing this week heard that the Home Office internally forecasts a new record of 56,000 small boat crossings in 2023, but Suella Braverman said she and Rishi Sunak were “absolutely committed to stopping the boats once and for all”.

The home secretary added: “The changes I am announcing today will help secure our borders and make it easier for us to remove people by preventing them from making last minute, bogus claims, while ensuring we strengthen our safe and legal routes.

“My focus remains on ensuring this landmark piece of legislation does what it is intended to do, and we now must work to pass it through parliament as soon as possible.”

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