BASW Statement on Biological Methods of Age Assessment
The adoption of biological (‘scientific’) methods in age assessment violate long-standing rights in relation to informed medical consent, offer no real advantages in assessing age and produce a procedural quagmire of unallocated responsibilities. Where consent to biological methods is withheld this decision should not be interpreted negatively on an individual’s claim to be a child or on their immigration status.
Under the 2022 Nationality and Borders Act the government can require the use of ‘scientific methods’ as part of the age determination process for those asylum seekers who are children or who are claiming to be children. The government is now proposing taking further powers in the current Illegal Migration Bill. This statement gives a summary of the situation, the role of social workers and BASW’s response.
Social work led, Merton-compliant, age assessment is a key aspect of meeting the needs of the child. Age assessments are also used in age determination, a legal process which is used in decision making about immigration and asylum status.
Age assessment involves social workers gathering information from a range of sources. Social workers should use all relevant information, multi-disciplinary expertise and other techniques in the age assessment process.
The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 introduced the concept of ‘scientific methods’ of age assessment. The term ‘scientific methods’ is highly problematic: the term implies precision, rigour and certainty and by implication suggests other methods (including Merton compliant assessments) lack precision, lack rigour and are highly uncertain. For this reason, BASW (and other authorities) prefer the term ‘biological methods’.
There has been on-going concern about the use of biological methods from a range of professional bodies. This includes uncertainty about the reliability of such techniques, the diversion of specialist resources which are normally dedicated to health care, and issues of medical consent.
An independent scientific committee appointed by the Home Office reported that biological methods are imprecise, offering only an estimation to between three and five years – not much use to the assessor if a young person is claiming to be 17.
The Illegal Migration Bill currently before Parliament (June 2023) contains a clause, introduced by amendment, that makes provision for the Home Secretary to introduce measures whereby an individual’s refusal to participate in a ‘scientific method’ of age assessment will lead to that individual being viewed by the Home Office as being aged 18 years or over and therefore able to be deported to a ‘safe country’[i].
There are many reasons why a young person might not wish to undergo a biological assessment. They may not understand the process or suffer from trauma. There is also a right in the UK which requires informed consent before undertaking any biological / medical intervention. Further there is a long-standing position of not undertaking medical interventions for non-medical purposes.
To date the Home Office has given scant regard to the practical implications of delivering biological assessments including the diversion of scarce resources dedicated to health care (for example, MRI scanners) for non-health care purposes, the sequencing of biological methods in relation to Merton compliant age assessments and the relative weighting between biological methods and Merton compliant methods in any age assessment.
In short, the adoption of biological methods violate long-standing rights in relation to informed medical consent, offer no real advantages in assessing age and produce a procedural quagmire of unallocated responsibilities. In future, failure to comply with a biological assessment could automatically lead to a determination of being aged18 or over and detention and deportation.
BASW therefore calls on social workers, local authorities and immigration and asylum lawyers and advisors to:
- Maintain the pre-eminence of Merton compliant assessment in age assessment and age determination decision making.
- Adhere to the fundamental position that in the UK informed consent is key to any type of biological / medical assessment or intervention. Where consent is withheld this decision should not interpreted negatively in an individual’s claim to be a child or their immigration status.
Further BASW will:
- Work with other professional bodies who are being asked to undertake biological assessments and who wish to oppose this imposition.
- Work with elected politicians of all parties who wish to oppose the introduction or implementation of ‘biological methods’ in their current form.
Merton compliant age assessment is a task undertaken and led by social workers.
The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 paved the way for ‘scientific methods’ to be used to assess the age of individuals whose claimed age is disputed and cannot be proven with documentary evidence such as a birth certificate. Further, Clause 56 of the Illegal Migration Bill of 2023 would allow the Home Secretary to introduce measures determining that if a person refuses to submit to a ‘scientific method’ of age assessment they will be viewed by the Home Office to be 18 years or over and therefore deportable to a ‘safe country’. This statement addresses the implications of these two pieces of legislation and how social workers should respond.
Both the Nationality and Borders Act (2022) and the Illegal Migration Bill (2023) erode the rights of refugees and children. This briefing focuses on one specific aspect of these two pieces of legislation: ‘scientific methods’.
The use of terminology
The term ‘scientific methods’ is problematic: use of the term ‘scientific’ implies precision, rigour and certainty and by implication suggests other methods (including Merton compliant assessments) lack precision, lack rigour and are highly uncertain. For that reason, this statement uses the term ‘biological methods’[ii].
Biological methods include techniques that argue chronological age can be judged by aspects of physiological development. This argument is disputed, for example, genetic inheritance and / or social factors such as malnutrition may also influence physiological development. In short, a person may be younger, or older, than their physiological development implies.
Biological methods involve an analysis of dental and/or skeletal development. If implemented such techniques would involve health practitioners, for example, dentists (dental analysis through X-ray) and radiographers (MRI scans to assess skeletal development). Both are part of what would normally be thought of as ‘health interventions’ undertaken by health professionals.
In this statement the term ‘biological methods’ is used as a short-hand term for these techniques.
In recent years, the UK Government has put a legislative focus on responding to the increase in small boats crossing the English Channel to the UK. The number of people detected arriving in small boats has increased from around 300 in 2018 to more than 30,000 in 2022[iii][iv]. Of all those who crossed in small boats in 2022, 16% were children[v].
The Home Office has pursued a narrative that many adults who come to the UK on small boats are claiming to be children to have access to services and rights afforded to all children under the Children Act 1989, and related legislation in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The current Home Secretary and her predecessor have made comments in public claiming that adults were masquerading as children, and parts of the media have routinely reported that two thirds of asylum-seekers who arrived in the UK since 2018 claiming to be unaccompanied children were found to be adults. This is not accurate, around 20% of people who said that they were unaccompanied children while claiming asylum in the UK between January 2018 and March 2022[vi] were later age assessed to be adults.
Despite the reality that many individuals are already age assessed as adults, the Home Office introduced the ability to carry out “scientific methods” of age assessments in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and are extending this ability in the Illegal Migration Bill 2023.
Social worker-led age assessments
Social workers are responsible for the age assessment of young people who are, or who claim to be, under 18 and are claiming asylum[vii]. This responsibility is not primarily about immigration control; it is about meeting the needs of the child and to provide appropriate care and accommodation, and alongside other professionals, appropriate education, and health services. Age assessments are also used by the Home Office, and others, to help determine the asylum and immigration status of individuals. If the person being assessed is in fact an adult, responsibilities pass to another agency.
The current age assessment progress is a two-stage system. In most cases the first professional to see a person who is claiming asylum - whether in the airport arrivals hall, or on the beach – is not a social worker but a member of Border Force. Border Force officials have their own age assessment guidance which was reissued on 31 March 2023[viii]. Cases are only referred to social workers for age assessment if staff at Border Force have reason to believe the person may well be a child.
Having undergone this initial screening social workers can and do age assess a proportion of those claiming to be children as in fact being adults. Figures included in a recent report published by the Helen Bamber Foundation show that there are “age disputed children” who are determined to be adults following assessment after referral to local authorities[ix].
The age assessment process is highly skilled work. This is because age determination is rarely about determining whether a 12-year-old is a child or an adult and more about determining whether someone claiming to be 16 or 17, is in fact 18 or older.
Biological methods of age assessment
The UK Government has determined that biological methods will make age assessment more accurate and are pursuing implementing these methods. However, current biological methods, like Merton compliant social work lead assessments, cannot pinpoint exact chronological age.
In 2021, the Age Estimation Scientific Advisory Committee was established by the Home Office, which brought together experts from different fields to consider biological methods of determining age[x]. In January 2023, the Committee published a report which concluded that biological methods are imprecise, offering only an estimation to between three and five years[xi] - not much use if you are trying to determine whether a young person is 16 or 20.
The Committee also concluded that appropriate scientific methods that could be implemented within 12 to 18 months are those that assess dental and skeletal development[xii]. This would expose unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to radiation and unnecessary medical procedures for immigration purposes. X-rays and MRI scans should only be used where it is medically necessary, and not to satisfy immigration procedures.
It is clear that currently there is no known “scientific method” that can precisely determine chronological age, and that the preferred way is through a multi-agency approach led by social workers.
Consent and inadmissibility
The Illegal Migration Bill contains a clause that allows the Home Secretary to introduce measures based upon the concept of “automatic assumption of adulthood”, that is if a young person does not consent to a scientific method, they will be viewed by the Home Office to be 18 years over. This means that, under the Bill, the Home Secretary would be able to deport them to a ‘safe country’.
Consequently, young people will be coerced into undergoing an X-ray or MRI scan for fear of not being believed. This approach does not take into consideration the inability of a young person to provide informed consent. Many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people may have little to no understanding of the English language. Many young people will not be able to understand the implications of an X-ray or MRI, what they involve, or why they are needed. Without this understanding, the young person cannot give informed consent.
Where a child is unaccompanied, they will have no parent or guardian, and it is the local authority who to all intents and purposes holds PR. This will put considerable resource pressure on local authorities, as well as a weight of responsibility on whoever is tasked with supporting the young person as they go through this process.
There is also a lack of clarity about what stage a biological method is used. There is concern that age-disputed individuals will be taken away as soon as they enter the country to undergo an examination.
Further, there is uncertainty as to the relationship between social worker-led age assessments and scientific assessments. The Home Office Age Estimation Advisory Committee has described a ‘likelihood ratio’ to determine whether the claimed age is possible when considering the results of a scientific assessment but has yet to provide more information about how this interacts with assessments that social workers undertake.
The adoption of biological methods violate long-standing rights in relation to informed medical consent, offer no real advantages in assessing age and produce a procedural quagmire of unallocated responsibilities. In future, failure to comply with a biological assessment could automatically lead to a determination of being aged 18 or over and detention and deportation.
[i] Clause 56: https://bills.parliament.uk/publications/50885/documents/3348; The Explanatory Memorandum is available here: https://bills.parliament.uk/publications/50909/documents/3354: p45 , 270-272
[ii] Both the Home Office Independent Age Estimation Scientific Advisory Committee and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology use of the term ‘biological methods’ rather than ‘scientific methods’.
[vii] B v London Borough of Merton  EWHC 1689 (Admin)
[viii] Home Office (2023) Assessing Age Version 6. London: Home Office
[ix] Official figures are not disaggregated and also include age disputes ‘resolved’ on arrival by a border official or at the Intake Union: https://www.helenbamber.org/sites/default/files/2023-04/Children%20trea… p3