A report by the Refugee Council to be published this week accuses the immigration service of continuing to detain child asylum seekers by wrongly classifying them as adults.
The report, Not a Minor Offence, has been welcomed by other groups working with refugees and asylum seekers who are growing increasingly concerned by the numbers of age dispute cases. Last year one child spent almost three months locked up before it was finally accepted that he was not an adult.
Evidence that children were being psychologically damaged by their experiences in the asylum system led the government to announce an end to the controversial practice of keeping under-18s in detention centres two years ago this weekend. Yet the practice is continuing and no one knows how many children have been illegally deported as adults.
Guessing someone’s age is controversial, but the Refugee Council believes officials are not erring on the side of caution. In many cases agencies find out about a child whose age is disputed only when another detainee inside a centre reports their concerns about an unaccompanied child being locked up.
Faisal was only 15 when he arrived in the UK. Judged to be an adult, he spent several days in police cells and was left to sleep rough on the streets before finally spending a month in a detention centre.
Talking about his experience still causes him acute distress. “I was 15. I didn’t have any documents but I know my age. I didn’t understand why it was so important.
“The immigration officer was banging his fist on the table saying ‘No, this is not your age’. By the end I was so tired and upset that I said OK, I will be whatever you want me to be. When I was first in the police cell I was crying because I couldn’t believe it. They came and banged on the door and shouted at me. One policeman drew his finger across his throat. They would all say ‘You’re going back, we’ll be sending you back’ and point at me and laugh. At the detention centre they locked me in a room by myself. I didn’t know anyone. I was very scared I was to be sent back to Afghanistan. I would rather die.”
The number of unaccompanied child asylum seekers arriving in the UK is dropping – from 3,645 in 2007 to 1,277 in 2011 – but no one knows why.
Judith Dennis, advocacy officer at the Refugee Council and author of the report, admitted the detention of children on the grounds that their age was in question had not changed, but said that establishing someone’s age was not easy. “It’s a difficult task but we should be erring on the side of caution. The official guidelines for unaccompanied children state they should not be detained unless ‘their physical appearance and/or demeanour very strongly indicates that they are significantly over 18’.
“That is clearly not what’s happening. All children should be referred to a social worker so that a proper assessment can be made. It’s not something you can decide in a few minutes, and I think it’s quite worrying this is what seems to be happening in a lot of cases.
“Given that it’s well established the harm the experience of being locked up can and has caused children, and that the government has accepted it’s unacceptable to lock up children, why are we not taking this more seriously?”
Hashi Syedain, of the independent monitoring board at Harmondsworth immigration removal centre, said the problem was serious. “It bears repeating again and again – in 2012 the UK is locking up children in Harmondsworth in what is effectively an adult male prison. They can remain there for weeks on end because the system doesn’t care enough to stop it happening.
“It is true that some young people who are over 18 claim to be younger in the hope of being allowed to stay in the UK, but this does not excuse the UK Border Agency’s failure to prevent children from ending up in detention.
“Another year passes in which nothing changes and children continue to find themselves in detention. It is not good enough.”
For Faisal, the intervention of Refugee Council workers meant he is at college and living in semi-independent hostel accommodation, but the trauma of his teenage years is far from over. When he turns 18 he may still be sent back to Afghanistan. “I try to study, but it’s hard to think of the future,” he said. “I feel very hopeless. I’m scared they will come for me and put me back in detention or deport me. I cannot go back to Afghanistan. If I had not left I would have been dead. If I go back, I will die.”