Human rights campaigners have hit back at claims that the migrant teenagers who arrived in Croydon from Calais this week were lying about how old they were, pointing out the difficultly of determining someone’s age based on their physical appearance.
The row flared up as Lunar House, the Home Office building in Croydon, prepared to welcome dozens more children from the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp, ahead of its demolition.
Zoe Gardner, of Asylum Aid, said: “It is impossible to accurately judge somebody’s age simply from looking at a photograph. All of these armchair age-assessors should be leaving the job to trained authorities.
“It is incredibly difficult to prove exact age, and this far more often leads to people who are children being mistakenly treated as adults (held in Detention Centre’s with adults, etc.) than vice versa.”
She was responding to controversy sparked by the Conservative MP for Monmouth, David Davies, who said: “These don’t look like ‘children’ to me. I hope British hospitality is not being abused, arguably suggesting that the children look older than 18 and that authorities could cause more misery if they are not careful enough.”
Following his comments, the Home Office published their guidance on asylum seekers saying they “should be treated as an adult if their physical appearance/demeanour very strongly suggests that they are significantly over 18 years of age”.
However, Gardner said the Government should be focusing on providing safety for as many children as possible. She said of the Home Office age determination proceedings: “The culture of automatic disbelief that exists in the Home Office and is being peddled by these hateful headlines is hampering this great country’s ability to save desperate, homeless young people from harm”.
Gardner pointed out it was often very hard to work out a child’s age based on their “demeanour”.
She said: “One child Asylum Aid has worked with had his age disputed and was questioned in a police station on his own for several hours. Experts later concluded not only that he was 15 years old, but had learning disabilities that meant he had the cognitive abilities of a seven year old.
“In his interview, the boy’s obvious fear and discomfort were taken as indicators that he was lying, rather than that he was a scared child under stress.”
The 14 migrant teenagers who arrived in Croydon from Calais Jungle camp on Monday morning (18 October) were aged between 14 and 17 according to the Home Office.
They will be housed in temporary accommodations and will be screened and tested according security proceedings before being reunited with their relatives already in the country.
They were brought to the UK by Citizens UK. A spokesperson from the organisation, which has reunited over 60 children from Calais with their families in the UK since March, said: “Many of the children transferred today and in the coming days will be children supported through the Safe Passage programme, all of whom have families waiting for them in the UK.
“Citizens UK will be assisting the government with the transfers and its volunteers from faith groups across the country have been engaged by the Home Office to help with the registration and transition of the children.”
Other groups of children are expected to arrive in the UK this week through the Safe Passage resettlement programme.
Citizens UK has already identified over 100 children who would be able to reach their relatives living in the UK through the Dubs amendment, that was passed in May and states that the UK will take “vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees” already in EU before 20 March 2017.
Lord Alf Dubs, who brought the amendment to the Immigration act, also commented on the teenagers’ arrival. He said: “In the coming days Citizens UK’s Safe Passage team will be working around the clock to ensure that all children with a legal right to sanctuary in the UK are brought to safety. This includes the children eligible under the Dubs amendment, for whom there is still no official process in place. No child must be left behind in the chaos of demolition.”
The news of the youngsters’ arrival were welcomed and considered to be a proud moment for Britain by Citizens UK and other charities and campaigners.
The actress Juliet Stevenson, who supports the organisation, said: “Many children will sleep safely in warm beds tonight but in the coming days we must make sure every last child with a right to sanctuary here is brought to safety.”