Social Justice

Campaigners slam Priti Patel’s ‘flawed and dangerous’ plan to x-ray asylum seekers to verify their age

Scientists will consider how the UK could verify the age of asylum seekers using methods healthcare workers said are "unethical"

asylum seekers

Experts will consider scientific options for verifying a person's age before reporting back to the government. Image: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street

Priti Patel’s plan to use x-rays and CT scans to prove asylum seekers are the age they claim to be has been branded “flawed and dangerous”.

The home secretary announced the formation of a new scientific advisory committee which will consider methods used in other countries such as Finland and Norway which examine a person’s teeth and bones when they are seeking safety.

This is to cut down on the practice of “single grown adult men, masquerading as children” to access schools and extra services and support “through deception and deceit”, Patel said. Many asylum seekers arriving in the UK do not have passports or documentation to prove their age.

But when the idea was reported last year, experts including the British Dental Association blasted the plans as “inappropriate and unethical” and warned dentists could be accused of “criminal battery” to take x-rays of a person without a specific medical purpose.

Patel’s committee will consider a “range of scientific methods” for estimating a person’s age according to their accuracy and reliability, as well as ethical and medical issues.

If an asylum seeker’s age is called into question it is not currently permitted for them to be physically examined, instead being interviewed by social workers. But in its announcement, the government referred to methods in France which include x-raying the fusion of the collar bone, teeth and wrists to ascertain age.

People arriving in the UK after fleeing danger elsewhere will have to consent to being examined, according to the plans, but the Home Office warned refusing tests could “[damage] the person’s credibility” in the eyes of the government.

“To say there are concerns to be had about this is underselling it spectacularly,” Daniel Sohege, director of human rights advocacy group Stand For All, tweeted in response to the announcement.

Even physical examination methods currently used in other countries are only accurate within two years of a person’s age, he added, and can be particularly inaccurate for people of colour because the bulk of research on size and age has been done into white people’s growth and development.

Basing the use of “flawed and dangerous” scientific age assessments on “disingenuous arguments” puts children at risk and would likely benefit the trafficking gangs Patel says she is targeting through the widely-condemned Nationality and Borders Bill, Sohege added. 

The home secretary said she would change UK legislation to “give the British public confidence that we will end the overt exploitation of our laws and UK taxpayers”.

The proposals will end “many of the blatant abuses that have led to our immigration and asylum system being abused by those with no right to be in our country,” Patel said.

“It is a fact that two thirds of age dispute cases have found that the individual claiming to be a child is actually over the age of 18. 

“I have given more resources and support to local councils to ensure that they apply vigorous and robust tests to check the ages of migrants to stop adult men being automatically classified as children.”

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