The Home Office guesses asylum seekers’ ages using ‘inaccurate and unethical’ tests. These are the consequences.
It was around 8 o’clock on a January night when several men from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) barged into Fati’s* home in Darfur, Sudan.
Machine guns in hand, they assaulted him, his uncle and older brother. The soldiers came with an ultimatum: join them to fight the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) or die. Fati’s family would choose neither. Within a matter of days, they gathered some clothes, food and water and fled by car. They were headed for Libya. The ride took two weeks.
It would take several more weeks for Fati’s thin limbs and torso to recover from the kicks, but the scars inside his mouth remain. He tells openDemocracy he was 16 at the time.
While he recovered, his uncle and brother worked odd jobs to pay a smuggler who would help Fati cross the Mediterranean from Tripoli to the Italian island of Lampedusa. From there, he would try to reach the UK where he would contact another uncle who had been living in Manchester for the past seven years. They could only afford for one of the three to make the journey. The elder men felt that if only one of them could reach safety and claim asylum, it should be Fati because he was the youngest and the most vulnerable.
As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!
“I was terrified,” he said, shoulders hunched over, while sitting on a weathered bench outside the hotel he has been assigned by the British government in a remote area of Liverpool, England. “Either you arrive alive or you die along the way. I was aware of this and was scared, but there was no other choice.”
Fati does not know how much his uncle and brother paid the smuggler. Those concerns were for the adults to handle. He only remembers how the other 40 migrants placed him with the children in the middle of the inflatable dinghy to protect them during the rough sea crossing. He didn’t know how to swim. For two days, Fati held hands with the other children as violent waves crashed onto their dinghy.
“When I saw the adults cry, I really thought I was going to die,” he said.
After two days at sea, the Italian coastguard rescued the dinghy and took the migrants to Lampedusa.
“It felt like I had died and come back to life,” he said. The Italian authorities took Fati’s fingerprints and, after 48 hours, transferred the migrants by boat to a refugee camp in Naples.
Fati had no way of letting his family know he had made it safely to Italy. They could afford only one phone while they were in Libya, which they gave to Fati for his journey. This left his uncle and brother with no device on which to be reached.
After ten days, he was allowed to leave the camp. He continued onwards by following other migrants en route to France. He travelled mainly by train until reaching Ventimiglia, a town located seven kilometres from the French border. For two days, he walked from Ventimiglia to Nice. Fati moved mainly at night and managed to dodge the strong French border patrols that repeatedly pushed migrants back to Italy. When in Nice, he took a train to Paris and then another to Calais, a port city in northern France through which thousands of migrants pass each year in their attempts to cross the English Channel. In Calais, he stayed in an improvised living site called “Old Lidl” (as it had once housed a branch of the supermarket) where hundreds of transient migrants had set up tents in an empty field.
Every day, Fati would sneak onto lorries hoping they were headed towards the UK. Sometimes he would end up in neighbouring countries instead. Other times he was caught by sniffer dogs and police at security checkpoints. Once they released him, he would make his way back to his living site. After four months of countless attempts, he felt he would never reach the UK. He grew exhausted and depressed. During this time, he says, he turned 17. Without any news from his family, Fati gave up. He just stayed in his tent, hopeless.
The older Sudanese men staying in the Old Lidl site took pity on him. They each pitched in to pay a smuggler who would take Fati to the UK in an inflatable dinghy. Again, the elders placed him with the children in the centre of the raft, from where he watched, once more, as big waves rocked the 60 migrants onboard.
After eight hours in the English Channel, they were rescued and taken to the Western Jet Foil processing centre in Dover, on the south-east coast of England.
“When I saw the adults cry, I really thought I was going to die."
When he was asked his age, Fati replied he was 17, but the agent told him he was writing down 22. Fati told him that this was incorrect, but the agent answered that he could rectify his age when he arrived at the hotel where he would be sent. We reached out to the Home Office for comment on Fati’s case and whether they would consider it acceptable for an assessor to do this.
“It is a longstanding government policy that we do not routinely comment on individual cases,” a Home Office spokesperson said.
The British government is currently paying for rooms in hundreds of hotels to house migrants while their asylum cases are sorted. However, when Fati arrived at his assigned hotel in a remote area of Liverpool, the staff told him he needed to speak with the Home Office to fix his age. He scrolled through the Home Office website on his phone, but – with his very limited English – found no way to change the age that the agent had filed for him.
Fati is just starting the next leg of his journey in the UK and is finding out how difficult it is to correct his age. Yet his future might depend on it. If he continues to be wrongfully registered as an adult, he will not receive the support and legal aid he is entitled to as a minor. It may also cut his chances of being granted asylum and even place him at risk of being deported to Rwanda, if the government manages to go ahead with the scheme that is currently being considered by MPs.
The age assessment of migrants is a contentious point in immigration policy in many parts of the world. It has come under increased scrutiny in the UK after then immigration minister Robert Jenrick’s announcement that the government would introduce a battery of highly criticised medical tests to help determine the age of migrants and to “clamp down on abuse of the system”.
The main concern around these biological tests is that they can provide an age range, but are unable to determine a precise age with certainty, according to Kama Petruczenko, senior policy analyst at the Refugee Council. Furthermore, they entail health risks such as exposure to unnecessary radiation and an impact on mental health. These biological exams include the use of x-rays to analyse the development of teeth and the fusion of bones in the hands and wrists. Other methods will consist of MRI scans of knees and collarbones.
The Home Office acknowledges that scientific methods used for age assessment have a known margin of error, but says they help make better informed and more accurate decisions. These tests are expected to begin in 2024 but, according to a written comment from the Home Office, plans for integrating medical age assessments into the existing process “will be set out in good time as they are still under development”.
“Evidence shows that using x-rays to determine age can be widely inaccurate, and the practice is ultimately unethical,” Andrew Rowland, child protection officer at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told openDemocracy.
“It is appalling to see that the government is persisting with these plans, which hinge life-changing decisions for some of the most vulnerable young people in our society on unspecific scientific outcomes [that involve] exposing them to radiation.”
According to Home Office Statistics, between January 2018 and March 2022, approximately 20% of individuals who presented themselves as unaccompanied children while seeking asylum in the UK were later found to be adults. The Home Office points out that other countries already use this kind of testing and that the use of x-ray imaging in processing asylum claims is a widespread practice throughout Europe in countries such as Finland, Norway, France and Greece. But the Refugee Council argues that many European countries are scaling down or stopping their use altogether, even if these methods still remain in their legal systems.
In 2021, the Refugee Council carried out a project with 233 migrants who had been initially determined by the Home Office as “certainly” adult. Of those, 94% of were found to be children and their cases overturned.
“These children are scared and traumatised after having made incredibly dangerous journeys escaping violence and persecution all alone. There are real safeguarding risks for these children, who may end up sharing hotel rooms with adults they don’t know, and there are no safeguards in place to protect them,” Petruczenko said.
Further, under the UK system, if Fati refuses to be age assessed, the Home Office will view him to be 18 years or older. This concept of “automatic assumption of adulthood” included in the Illegal Migration Bill, allows the home secretary to deport him to a “safe country”.
“Informed consent is fundamental to all medical practice, and by definition must be free from duress,” said Rowland. “This government policy enforces a slide away from that core principle as it places such significant consequences on the refusal of biological age assessments.”
There are several reasons why migrants rarely have an official ID to show when they arrive in the country where they hope to claim asylum. Some people have had to use false documents to escape persecution; others may fear they will be immediately deported to their country of origin without a fair chance at asylum. In some cases, smugglers either confiscate passports or forbid migrants from carrying them.
It has been four months since Fati arrived in the UK. He has not given up on trying to correct his age. Recently, he was able to get in touch with a lawyer through the Red Cross, but is still waiting for a reply.
But his time is running out. Even if he can prove that border police deliberately registered him as an adult, once he turns 18, Fati will lose any chance at receiving the aid and support that he should have received for being an unaccompanied minor.
In early 2024, the government moved him and the other migrants out of their hotel and distributed them in new dwellings. He is currently sharing a two-story house with two adult migrants but says he is not comfortable there. “I don’t want to live with them,” he said, referring to the older men. To make matters worse, while he was in Calais, Fati lost the phone number of his uncle in Manchester and has no way to reach him.
While he is very grateful to have made it to the UK alive, he is tormented because it has been six months since he heard from his parents or siblings in Sudan.
He reassures himself by explaining that their silence is likely due to the war having destroyed the phone network in his region. “I have absolutely no news from them,” he said. “I don’t know if they are OK. My heart hurts at night. I can’t sleep unless I cry or go out for a walk.”