UK: ‘Unaccompanied Minor’ Age Assessments Based on Appearance Ruled Unlawful

Police officer stand guard as unaccompanied migrant minors, from the demolished "Jungle" migrant camp in Calais, arrive to board a bus to travel to reception centres around France on November 2, 2016 in Calais, northern France. The dismantlement of the camp that once housed up to 10,000 migrants, most of …
PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images

Asylum seeker age assessments based on physical appearance and outward behaviour are unlawful, UK judges have said.

Government guidelines allowing authorities to treat such migrants as adults if their physical appearance and/or demeanour “very strongly suggests that they are significantly over 18 years of age” are not legitimate and risk “children being unlawfully detained”, according to a new ruling.

Asserting that assessing the age of a person based on their appearance and demeanour was “an inexact science”, judges ruled by two to one on Thursday that the Home Office guidelines should be scrapped.

Lord Justice Underhill said: “In the absence of guidance as to the width of the margin of error there is inevitably a real risk that immigration officers will place too much trust in their own assessment that a particular young person is ‘significantly’ over 18.”

The case was brought to the Court of Appeal by representatives for an Eritrean male who broke into Britain on the back of a lorry in 2014 and presented himself to police as a 16-year-old who was born in 1998.

Lawyers argued the migrant, identified only as BF, was unlawfully detained after several members of the authorities including police officers and border guards refused to believe he was a minor, according to The Times, which reports that the Eritrean was described by a chief immigration officer involved in the assessment as looking like “an adult in his mid-twenties”.

Age assessments based on physical assessments and demeanour are not necessarily accurate, Lord Justices Underhill, Simon, and Baker said in their ruling, pointing out that BF was found to be over 18 at two formal assessments before another test six months later in Wales, where social workers in Wales deemed him to be a child.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) boss, Rebecca Hilsenrath, praised the ruling, declaring that “children’s rights and welfare should not be a guessing game”, while the Home Office professed it was “disappointed by the judgment”.

NGOs and so-called human rights bodies are generally opposed to age testing asylum seekers who claim to be children, with the Council of Europe demanding that such migrants “be given the benefit of the doubt and presumed to be a child” on the basis that age assessments “may be frightening and unsettling for children”.

But others argue that the dismantling of checks risks putting unvetted, potentially dangerous adults into close proximity with children at services like schools and foster homes.

Fears that adult migrants are posing as children to gain access to favourable treatment and more costly services by the UK authorities have not been unfounded, according to previous Home Office figures, which revealed 65 per cent of individuals alleging they were “unaccompanied minors” in the year to September 2015 were judged to be over 18.

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