The High Court has ruled that the Home Office policy on judging the age of unaccompanied children seeking asylum is unlawful. Ministers have, up until now, allowed immigration officers to treat as an adult anyone they believe seems to be ‘significantly over the age of 18’.
In this case, a 16 year old boy was detained by the Home Office in an adult immigration removal centre for two weeks before being released. Social workers from Wolverhampton City Council had undertaken an age assessment which confirmed he was 16, but he was locked up before this result was passed on to the Home Office. You can read more about the case here.
The High Court found that the boy, from Sudan, had been unlawfully detained and was entitled to damages. The ruling, by Mr Justice Silber, found that the question of an asylum seeker’s age is a matter of ‘objective fact’. The consequences of this ruling mean that subjective and non-expert assessments of age, and detaining on the basis of a ‘reasonable belief’ that a person is significantly over 18, is unlawful.
The boy’s lawyers, Bhatia Best Solicitors, predicted that this landmark judgment would mean many more children were eligible for immediate release and hundreds of asylum seeking children may be entitled to claim significant damages for their detention.
‘This judgment is extremely significant and sends a clear message to the Home Office that its current policy is both unlawful and indefensible,’ commented Refugee Council policy manager Judith Dennis.
‘For too long the Government has been jeopardising the safety of children who it should be protecting. It’s clear that the stakes are far, far too high for children to be arbitrarily thrown behind bars with adults on the basis of guesswork. Instead of wasting public money fighting this ruling, the Government should instead ensure that everyone who claims to be a child receives a sensitive, timely, lawful and expert led age assessment.’
Judith Dennis, Refugee Council
The coalition government announced in 2010 that it would end the detention of children in immigration removal centres. Although the numbers have decreased since then, the Refugee Council report that between 2010 and 2014 they assisted in securing the release of over 120 unaccompanied children. From 2015 until the end of March 2016, they have helped release 21 young people from detention.
They warn however that such figures are likely to be ‘the tip of the iceberg’ as many more cases would be unreported and go unchallenged. There will also be unaccompanied children who are wrongly assessed but not detained.
However, even those children who are not detained will still be wrongly denied support and care that is available to child asylum seekers.
In the current global climate, it is unlikely that these numbers will go down in the near future.
A new Refugee Council report on Asylum Seekers in Europe confirmed that along with an overall increase of asylum seekers in Europe in 2015, there was also a rise in unaccompanied children seeking asylum. In 2014 there were 1,945 applications for asylum from lone children and in 2015 that figure rose to 3,045.
Joanna is a civil liberties solicitor with a background in challenging police misconduct and inquests following deaths in custody