X-ray plan for young asylum seekers
Teeth and wrist bones examined to check age
Scheme is unethical and ineffective, say critics
Lucy Ward, social affairs correspondent
Friday January 5, 2007
Young asylum seekers entering the UK face undergoing x-rays of their teeth and wrist bones to try to assess their age under government plans opposed as unethical and ineffective by an array of medical specialists and children's campaigners.
A Home Office document seen by the Guardian, a final version of which is due to be published within days, outlines plans to introduce the medical procedures in measures to determine whether unaccompanied young asylum seekers without valid documents are under 18.
That age threshold is crucial because under-18-year-olds receive higher levels of support and protection than adults, and ministers are concerned that some asylum seekers try to pass themselves off as younger than they are to qualify. Approaching 3,000 unaccompanied children apply for asylum in the UK each year, from countries including Afghanistan and Iran, but more than 2,500 other applications end up in age disputes.
However, the plans to try x-rays and dental checks, part of wide-ranging moves to overhaul the treatment of children coming to Britain alone to seek asylum, are being challenged by a powerful lobby of critics. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health raised concerns that the procedures are inappropriate for determining age. Gill Markham, vice-president of the Royal College of Radiologists, questioned the ethics of “irradiating people for purposes not to their advantage”.
X-rays are accurate only to within plus or minus two years in assessing age, so could not distinguish with certainty between a 16 and a 20-year-old, particularly from racial groups for which the UK holds no official data on size and age, she added. The Children's Society says medical assessments “can be very traumatic and invasive for children who have experienced persecution”, and the office of the children's commissioner for England has raised concerns with the Home Office about “the use of a medical procedure for non-medical purposes” and a lack of informed consent.
The draft document on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children says dental and wrist x-rays have been successfully used to assess age in other European countries. But critics fear the x-rays could become the key evidence in determining age.
Heaven Crawley, director of the Centre for Immigration Policy Research at Swansea University and author of a forthcoming report on age assessment, said: “The fear is that the Home Office will rely upon that [medical assessment] as if it is somehow technologically superior to anything else we have, when in fact it does not offer anything over and above what we have already got.” The government was trying to use x-rays to sort out the current chaos in conducting age assessments, Dr Crawley said. She understood dentists had already been hired at some UK ports to conduct the tests.
Adrian Matthews, from the refugee and asylum seeking children's project at the Children's Legal Centre, said there was no evidence that the procedures were accurate. No national figures are published on case outcomes, but at the Oakington detention centre in Cambridgeshire in 2005, 60% of those assessed by social services were found to be genuine minors.
The Home Office paper also outlines plans for a dispersal system to house unaccompanied child asylum seekers out of the high-cost areas of London and the south-east. Lack of control over where youngsters are placed is so bad that “current arrangements come close to leaving that decision to people smugglers and traffickers”, says the paper.