UK Government must keep its promise to end child detention by stopping the imprisonment of young asylum seekers whose age is disputed, the Refugee Council has said.
The Government pledged in 2010 to end child detention, but some unaccompanied children are still being imprisoned as they are wrongfully thought to be adults.
The Refugee Council said that last year they secured the release of 36 young people found in detention who had been wrongly assessed to be adults. Six other young people have been released from detention into local authority care pending a new age assessment.
Of the young people released, 12 were under the age of 16, with two being under the age of 15.
The Refugee Council suspects this figure to be the tip of the iceberg, with more cases of children being wrongly detained going unreported and unchallenged.
Asylum seekers who are having their age disputed are frequently incarcerated in adult immigration centres, forced to share a room with adults. For all children fleeing conflict, including those who are escaping persecution, including trafficking, sexual exploitation and conflict, this is an extremely damaging experience.
The Refugee Council’s 2012 report, “Not a Minor Offence”, outlined the traumatic experiences of children who are believed to be adults by the Home Office and held in detention centres.
Refugee Council Policy Officer Judith Dennis said: "Locking up children who haven’t committed any crime is a shameful practice that must end now. The Government knows that wrongfully imprisoning vulnerable children can cause lasting psychological and emotional damage so it’s completely astounding it continues to do so.
"Children within the asylum system are already extremely vulnerable. It’s wholly unacceptable that they are consistently put at further risk by the authorities who are supposed to be protecting them. Children should be treated as children first, regardless of their immigration status.”
The Refugee Council is calling for people whose age is in question to be given the benefit of the doubt until their age has been carefully established by an independent professional.
The Refugee Council is also asking the Government to ensure that each asylum seeking child is appointed a legal guardian to ensure that their best interests are safeguarded. This would include those whose claim to be a child has not yet been fully determined.
This person’s role would be to ensure that all children within the asylum system are able to understand their rights, ensure that their voices are heard in decisions that affect them and are supported effectively through the different legal processes that they are engaged in.
Ms. Dennis added: "Now is the time for the Government to live up to their pledge to end child detention once and for all.”