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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Diane Taylor

Lone children at risk of deportation to Rwanda after being classified as adults, says charity

Children holding placards outside parliament
Age-disputed children at risk of being sent to Rwanda outside parliament in April. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Lone child asylum seekers are at risk of being sent to Rwanda because the Home Office has wrongly classified some as adults, it has been claimed.

The Refugee Council, which works with these children, has warned of the risk after more than a dozen of the children it works with were wrongly issued with notices of intent for Rwanda.

The Home Office has said it will not send lone children to the east African country. However, if officials wrongly classify a child as an adult, they can be sent.

According to Refugee Council data, six age-disputed people it has been working with have been detained in adult immigration detention centres. Five of them have now had their ages definitively accepted as children and are in the care of local authorities, while another was unsuccessful in his effort to challenge his assigned age.

Eight young people received notices of intent for Rwanda while in adult Home Office accommodation. Six have had their ages definitively accepted as children and are now in the care of local authority children’s services. Two were unsuccessful in challenging the age the Home Office gave them. Another child was in the care of children’s social services when he received a notice of intent for Rwanda awaiting the outcome of an age assessment. He has since been definitively confirmed to be a child after an age assessment.

If a child disputes their age and the Home Office deems them an adult, they can be sent to Rwanda before the outcome of a social worker’s age assessment is known.

In freedom of information data obtained last year from 70 local authority social services departments, two-thirds of children – 867 of 1,386 – deemed to be adults by the Home Office were later confirmed to be children.

Maddie Harris, of the Humans for Rights Network, said that between July 2023 and April 2024, more than 600 children had contacted them after being deemed to be adults on arrival in the UK, including 17 children wrongly accommodated at the Wethersfield military base in Essex.

In a recent adjournment debate on the issue, the Labour MP Andrew Western said: “I am afraid to say that the government’s recent illegal migration legislation poses further risks – chief among them that children will be inadvertently sent to Rwanda.

“We know that last year, there were numerous cases of children who had been detained as adults being issued with notices of intent to remove them to Rwanda on flights that ultimately never took off.”

One child who received a notice of intent for Rwanda because the Home Office wrongly classified him as an adult talked about the impact on him. He said: “I felt really bad about (receiving] the letter. People who flee their homeland, they come to the UK, they ask for support and then get threatened to be sent away. It’s terrible. I would like them to stop this policy.”

Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “One of the most egregious elements of the Rwanda plan is the very real risk it could see children, incorrectly judged as adults, being shipped off on a one-way ticket to enter another country’s asylum system that our supreme court has ruled is unsafe.

“We know from extensive first-hand experience that these children have already survived horrific journeys escaping persecution, bloodshed and terror. The idea that they now face being locked up, forced on flights and expelled from the UK is inhumane.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have always said that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children will not be sent to Rwanda.

“If there is doubt about an individual’s age, they will be treated as a child pending further observation by a local authority and will not be removed while an assessment is ongoing. Our age assessment process continues to be strengthened through methods already widely used across Europe, including X-rays and MRIs.”

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