Child asylum seekers are being forced to share hotel rooms with adults, as the Home Office’s new hotel “maximisation” programme begins doubling the capacity of refugee hotels by putting two strangers in roomsspaces that were previously single occupancy, a charity has warned.
The Refugee Council has warned that frequent misclassification of child refugees as adults at the UK border is exposing them to serious safeguarding risks, with the dangers heightened by the government’s new drive to reduce the cost of hotels by introducing a room-sharing policy.
The Guardian interviewed seven young asylum seekers in Yorkshire this week, and all said they told border guards that they were 16 or 17 on arrival in the UK by small boat in August and September – but all said they were wrongly classified as adults by officials and given ages between 22 and 26.
Refugee Council staff who subsequently interviewed them, and verified the identity documents of those who have them, believe errors have been made.
Faisal, who arrived on a small boat in August after a long journey from Eritrea, says he told officials at the border that he was 16, but was handed a document which correctly registered the day and month of his birth, while marking his year of birth 10 years earlier, classifying him as 26. He and the other six boys interviewed did not want to give their real names, concerned that being identified while criticising Home Office policy might jeopardise their asylum applications.
He said he was overwhelmed by the smells of petrol from the boat, drenched in salty water, cold and exhausted when he arrived, and was given a French Arabic interpreter instead of a Tigrinya-speaking one, so he struggled to understand what was being said.
“Maybe the interpreter gave them the wrong information. They made me 10 years older; I couldn’t understand it,” he said, through an interpreter at the charity’s offices. He is uncomfortable in the adult hotel and said he has felt suicidal. “I’m sharing with a man who’s about 30. I feel lost. Sometimes I put my head under the bedding and cry. I miss my mum.”
A trio of teenagers from Afghanistan said they had photographs of their Afghan identity papers, showing they were children, with them on their phones but were either unable to show the documents at the border because the phones had been confiscated during the screening process on arrival or, in one case, because the phone had been damaged en route.
Mohammed, whose identity papers show he is 16, was classified at the border as 22. “They put my birthday down correctly, but they put 2001 instead of 2007. I said: ‘That’s not the right year,’ and they said, ‘Don’t worry, a case worker will sort it out for you later.’” He was unable to rectify the mistake and has been put in a hotel room with a 40-year-old man, who smokes out of the window, attracting trouble from the hotel security guards.
These children arrived in the UK amid renewed political controversy over age assessments for adolescent migrants. Both the home secretary, Suella Braverman, and her predecessor, Priti Patel, have spoken of their determination to crack down on adults posing as children when they enter the UK.
In September, Braverman told GB News she wanted to inject “more rigour and robustness” into the system to stop adults “gaming the system” by lying and “pretending to be children”. The Illegal Migration Act 2023 plans to introduce “scientific assessments” such as X-rays, and has introduced a new National Age Assessment Board. But proposals to use X-rays have been controversial, with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health warning their use is unethical and can be “widely inaccurate”.
The Home Office acknowledges that this is a challenging area and that there is no single assessment method which can determine an individual’s age with precision. Officials will treat a claimant as an adult “if their physical appearance and demeanour very strongly suggests that they are significantly over 18 years of age”.
The group of seven young people in Yorkshire do not look significantly older than 18. They have the range of appearances that might be found in any sixth-form classroom; they fidget, click their knuckles, fiddle with pieces of blu-tac, yawn, and look alternately bored and worried; some have started shaving, but others have not; some look very baby-faced, others look young but also aged by exhaustion.
In recent years the issue of adults pretending to be children has occupied considerable bandwidth in the political and media debate over illegal immigration, particularly after a bomb attack on the tube in 2017 by Ahmed Hassan, an Iraqi asylum seeker initially wrongly aged as 16 and later judged to be between 18 and 21.
Refugee charities have questioned this preoccupation, pointing out that there is little advantage to be gained by being classified as a child in terms of the likelihood of an asylum application being approved. The Home Office says it wants to stop adult applicants “posing as children as a way of accessing support they are not entitled to”, but charities say asylum seekers have little awareness of what support might be available.
The methods used for age assessment have prompted regular criticism from refugee charities and lawyers. In September, a judge overturned a Home Office decision that an Afghan asylum seeker was 25, ruling instead that he was 16, and criticising the questionable methodology used by officials, which included a reference to a report from the shaving company Gillette about the age at which boys start shaving.
Precisely how officials assessed their age at the border was not clear to the boys in Yorkshire. Only one of the seven was aware of being subjected to what he thinks was a physical examination. Waqas, who has a photograph of his Afghan identity papers on his phone showing his age as 16 years and eight months, was classified as 22 by Home Office staff who processed him on arrival in a small boat in September. He was asked to open his mouth, and they looked at his forehead and the palms of his hands.
“They gave me a piece of paper putting my age as 22. I didn’t understand it at the time, because I don’t speak English,” he said. He has also been housed in a room with an adult. “The adults in the hotel are drinking and making a lot of noise. We don’t feel safe.”
Caroline Norman, a Refugee Council project manager, said she was worried about the recent rise in the number of children being housed in adult hotels. “These children are shockingly uncared for,” she said. Kama Petruczenko, senior policy analyst with the charity, said colleagues have seen “unprecedented” numbers of children in adult hotels, causing “very serious safeguarding implications”. “There is a political narrative built on the idea that there are so many adults pretending to be children, whereas we believe the reverse is the case – that there are significant numbers of children in the adult system,” she said.
A Home Office spokesperson said it could not comment on the boys’ cases, adding: “It’s vital that we remove incentives for adults to pretend to be children in order to remain in the UK. Between January 2016 and the year ending June 2021, 58% of asylum applicants whose age was disputed were found to be adults.”
The Refugee Council said in 2021 its age assessment project worked with 233 young people whose age had initially been determined by the Home Office as “certainly” adult, only 14 of whom were subsequently found to be adults, with 94% of cases being overturned.