'Is this a hidden problem?' – report reveals Government was warned about adults posing as child asylum seekers
PUBLISHED: 15:42 06 November 2018 | UPDATED: 16:54 06 November 2018
The MP for Ipswich has criticised Home Office policy after it emerged the Government was warned about adults posing as child asylum seekers – months before an investigation was launched into the age of a pupil at a Suffolk school.
Sandy Martin said he was concerned officials do not carry out “proper checks” to ensure claimants are under 18 before allowing them into schools – arguing that “you can never just rely on what people tell you”.
According to official guidance, Home Office staff are told to give “the benefit of the doubt” to asylum seekers who claim to be children so as to avoid safeguarding risks of detaining them alongside adults.
However, earlier this year, its advice was criticised for being “too vague” in a report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Bolt. Among his findings, Mr Bolt said staff did not feel confident about making age assessments of asylum seekers, particularly judging whether the claimant was “significantly over 18”.
The report stated that Home Office data for 2016/17 showed that in cases where the claimant’s age was disputed, 65% had been found to be adults, while just 35% were children.
Mr Martin said the figures pointed to the “inadequacy” of the Home Office policy.
“I do understand that parents might be concerned, and I would hope that the Home Office would have recognised that as well,” he said.
“The Home Office has a duty to safeguard young refugees and asylum seekers, but they also have a responsibility not to put any other young people at risk.
“I think the fact that about two thirds of ‘young’ people challenged about their age were found to be significantly older than they claimed does point up the inadequacy of the Home Office’s checks in the past.”
Christopher Hudson, Suffolk county councillor for the Belstead Brook ward, said this indicated “a massive security problem which is evidenced at Stoke High”.
“I think it would seem to be a glaring error,” he said.
“As a corporate parent and as a county councillor, I am very worried and concerned that the protocols are not in place to establish how old these people are and where they are from. How much of this is a hidden problem? We need transparency and best practice, both seem to be lacking.
“I think this is of national significance.”
Responding to the report, the Home Office said its updated advice on assessing the age of claimants provided “comprehensive guidance” for its staff, particularly when assessing whether an applicant’s appearance or demeanour suggests they are over 18.
Judith Dennis, policy manager at the Refugee Council, said young people seeking asylum often flee their home countries without official documents, and – as there is no perfect method of assessing a person’s age – “it is broadly accepted that it is a difficult task and benefit of the doubt must be applied”.
Responding to claims that a student at Stoke High told his peers he was lying about his age, a Government spokesperson said: “The Home Office does not routinely comment on individual cases.
“Where there are concerns that an individual may not be a minor as claimed, the Home Office’s policy is to ask social services to complete a full age assessment.”
Suffolk County Council acknowledged it worked with the Home Office on some asylum seeker applications, but said it had “zero involvement” in the Stoke High School case.
A spokesperson for the school said it is “continuing to liaise with the authorities”.
They added: “We have informed parents of the situation and will continue to keep them updated as we receive information.”