The Nationality and Border Bill sets out reforms for approaches to assess the age of asylum seekers to determine if they are children or adults, if this is unclear, unknown or disputed. The Government’s proposals are based on its concerns that the current approach is highly subjective, with repercussions including costly and protracted legal disputes, and safeguarding issues arising where adults are deemed to be children and vice versa. Current policy is that unless a claimant’s “physical appearance and demeanour” very strongly suggests that they are significantly over 18 years of age, they should be treated as a child until a holistic assessment is carried out by a Local Authority social worker.

Proposals cite using new scientific methods to assess an individual’s age more accurately, but there are no details of what the new techniques in question are, what methods might be adopted, the extent to which any such approaches carry scientific validity, or the degree to which they may be relied upon. Examples of existing practices elsewhere includes analysis of dentition, physical examination and X-rays of the skeleton. These approaches are criticised by stakeholders, including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, stating that some such methods are imprecise, have a high margin of error, and that exposing children to radiation for this purpose is unethical. Several EU countries cited by the UK Government have immigration processes that include methods derived from a scientific approach to age assessment, include Sweden, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Methods range from observations of the teeth and physical development to the use of radiation to examine dentition and the bones of the wrist and hand.

This POSTnote will summarise the range of scientific approaches that could inform an age assessment process, with consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of methods, and reference to existing UK and international practices. It will also summarise stakeholder views, given that this is a controversial issue that has attracted criticism from the public health community, human rights and children’s advocacy groups.

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