Vulnerable child refugees arriving in the UK are at a “very significant risk” of being inadvertently shipped to Rwanda under Priti Patel’s new asylum deal, charities have warned.
Ministers are being warned that unaccompanied minors could be “caught up” in the UK’s plans to deport thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda, placing them at risk of abuse and exploitation, in spite of assurances that they will not be among those removed under the agreement .
The multi-million-pound deal between the UK and Rwanda, announced last Thursday, will see asylum seekers in the UK flown 4,000 miles away to have their asylum claims processed by the east African country.
The move has been widely condemned by high profile figures including the UNHCR, which said it was “unacceptable” and a breach of international law, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who described the plan as “ungodly”.
Hours after the deal was announced, it emerged that Britain had condemned Rwanda for failing to investigate human rights violations and protect trafficking victims months before the agreement was signed.
The government has said unaccompanied children will not among those deported to Rwanda, but organizations supporting child asylum seekers said youngsters would be at risk of being inadvertently sent there due to inaccurate age assessments.
Azmina Siddique, policy and impact manager at the Children’s Society, said it was “shameful” that the government was pressing ahead with the plan, adding: “We are particularly worried about children who could be mistakenly assessed as adults and sent to Rwanda.
“We know from the young people we support, that refugees have often fled war and persecution and already endured perilous journeys and experienced untold trauma to get here. To then be sent another 4,000 miles across the world, is unthinkable.”
The Home Office’s system for assessing the age of asylum seekers has been criticized for wrongly assessing children to be adults.
The Independent reported in January that child refugees had been forced to share rooms and even beds with adults they did not know, as increasing numbers were incorrectly placed in accommodation designed for over-18s.
Days later, the High Court ruled that the Home Office’s process of age-assessing young asylum seekers in detention as soon as they arrive in the UK was unlawful.
Benny Hunter, coordinator of charity Da’aro Youth, which has helped many children to successfully challenge age assessments, said the assessments were “often carried out in haste and sometimes without interpreters”.
“Decisions are heavily based on appearance and demeanor and are prone to bias. If these vulnerable young people are now at risk of being banned to Rwanda after a wrongful age assessment, how will they be able to access legal remedy and to protect their rights?” he said.
“The obvious risk is highly vulnerable children being sent to a country they have no knowledge of, where they cannot speak the language, where they will fall prey to abuse and exploitation.”
Mr Hunter warned that measures in the Nationalities and Borders Bill, which is currently going through parliament, would increase the number of children who go through an age assessment – “the likely consequence being more children being wrongly treated as adults”.
The bill, which is set to be debated in the Commons on Wednesday, would lower the threshold for young asylum seekers to be identified as over-18 and allow for the use of “scientific” methods to carry out age assessments.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) warned in January that these plans would have “severe” consequences” and lead to more children housed in conditions that are “completely inappropriate”.
Patricia Durr, chief executive of Ecpat UK, which supports trafficked children, said: “We are concerned about the very significant risk that children and young people may also be caught up in this, particularly in view of proposals around age assessments which will result in more children being treated as adults.
“The fact that the UK which has been a world leader in tackling modern slavery and in child protection, now stands ready to place child victims of trafficking at risk of further significant harm in a country that it has previously criticized for its lack of protection, is something which cannot be countenanced.”
It comes as an open letter to the government from charities warns that the bill will have a “massively detrimental” impact on exploited children, who they say will be at greater risk of being unidentified, unprotected and penalized.
Data released by Ecpat and Missing People alongside the letter shows that the number of children in care who are suspected of being victims of trafficking or modern slavery increased by 22 per cent – from 960 to 1,231 – between 2018 and 2020.
The Home Office has been approached for comment.