Removal of Home Office funding to work with age-disputed a big blow 1st June 2009: Even as Prime Minister Gordon Brown says Britain will continue to offer a safe haven to people fleeing desperate situations in the years to come, a leading charity apprehends children escaping war and persecution will be “wrongly denied education and given no more help than adult asylum seekers in the UK under controversial changes introduced by the government”.
The Refugee Council says the removal of its Home Office funding to work with "age-disputed" asylum seekers will leave vulnerable children incorrectly assessed by officials as over 18. Many of them severely traumatised by their experiences and at risk of harm will have no one to help them prove their real age.
It has received money to work with such young people, including former child soldiers or victims of trafficking, for 15 years. But the government says it is cutting the funding, currently worth £250,000 a year, because there are other provisions in place to deal with age disputes.
Last year, more than a quarter of the 5,360 unaccompanied asylum seekers, who arrived in Britain claiming to be children, were judged to be adults, some on the basis only of visual assessments.
The Refugee Council estimates half of such decisions may be wrong. It resulted in leaving children as young as 14 being placed in detention centres or housed with unrelated adults, without access to the education and care they are entitled to.
The Council warns if the gap in support is allowed to develop, the Borders Agency will be breaching its own code on keeping children safe, while they are in the UK.
"By allowing age-disputed children to languish in detention without the support from the Refugee Council’s children’s panel or other qualified staff, the UKBA is clearly placing them in harm’s way," says the charity’s chief executive, Donna Covey. "The figures on outcomes for age-disputed children show we cannot rely on the current procedures alone to safeguard these vulnerable children."
Last year the Refugee Council supported nearly 400 age-disputed young people in London. In a three-month period, 42 per cent of those they worked with were found to be children. Among them were 20 young people classified by the UKBA as adults on a visual assessment. Ten were later found to be children.
The children’s commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, has written to the government about the issue. Previously, the Refugee Council has been able to help when immigration officials and social services have disputed a child’s age, providing welfare solicitors, getting them referred for medical assessments, and lobbying on their behalf.
The UKBA rejected the Council’s claims and said safeguards existed to protect those whose age was disputed. "Where an individual’s age is disputed, they are referred to the local authority, and a social worker carries out an independent age assessment. The UKBA will accept their findings," a spokesman said.