A Sudanese migrant has been awarded compensation after the Court of Appeal upheld a ruling stating the government could not assume he was an adult merely by looking at him.
On Thursday, the Home Office lost its challenge against a High Court ruling made last year that the migrant was detained illegally for three weeks despite being a minor.
The government defended the detention on the grounds that an immigration officer “reasonably believed” the migrant was over 18. But the judge in the High Court case ruled that the principle of reasonable belief was legally flawed because the age of the migrant is an objective fact.
Upholding the High Court’s verdict, Lord Justice Davis said the ruling “has a wider importance for other cases”, adding: “If the result which I reach in this case is unwelcome to the present Government then its remedy is to amend the statutory provisions.”
The migrant was awarded compensation for the three weeks he spent in detention on the basis that, as a child, he was exempt from such treatment.
The migrant, named for the first time as Abdul-Muttalab Ali, arrived illegally in the UK in the back of a lorry in 2014, whereupon he was discovered in Wolverhampton, the Daily Mail has reported.
Following an initial “visual assessment”, in which officers deemed him to be over 18, Ali was given leave to remain in the country on a temporary basis.
His case was handed over to Wolverhampton City Council whose officers carried out a Merton compliant age assessment, in which two social workers conduct in-depth interviews with the applicant. Physical appearance is taken into account during the assessment, but it does not include a physical, medical, or dental examination.
In Ali’s case the social workers determined him to be 16 years old, informing the Home Office of their assessment. But when Ali arrived for a meeting with officials he was detained for three weeks based on the immigration officer’s original assessment, not the social service’s Merton assessment.
It is for that period in detention that Ali has been awarded compensation.
Stuart Luke, of midlands law firm Bhatia Best who brought the case, said: “The judgment has far-reaching implications for how the government must treat vulnerable unaccompanied children and the circumstances when a power can be exercised to detain these children.”
Judith Dennis, policy manager for The Refugee Council told The Guardian: “This sends an unequivocal message to the government: allowing officials to randomly guess children’s ages and then throw them behind bars breaks the law.”
Following the judgment, a Home Office spokesman said: “We take our responsibility in asylum cases involving children very seriously and ensure their welfare is at the heart of every decision. That is why we ended the routine detention of children for immigration purposes.
“But we will not operate a system open to abuse and must avoid a situation where legitimate
“We are currently considering the judgment in detail and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”