Geneva – Minors in the UK who are escaping war and persecution in their countries of origin are being misclassified as adults and detained for no ethically sound reason, warned Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor in a statement on Wednesday. Apart from stripping them of their legitimate rights as children, this malevolent practise is illegal and puts vulnerable youth in grave danger of abuse, violence, and other forms of exploitation.

Increasingly, the UK Home Office is routinely changing the birthdates of unaccompanied children seeking asylum, so it appears on paper that these youth are over the age of 18, with the sole purpose of stripping them of the rights and guarantees provided by the law for children and minors.

Many of these children have been wrongly placed in the infamous Manston migrant processing centre in Kent and detained in unsafe conditions for up to several weeks at a time.

   Minors wrongly classified as adults are the most at risk of going missing, precisely because they are unprotected, mistreated, and unaware of their rights due to UK authorities’ actions.   

Michela Pugliese, Migration and Asylum Researcher at Euro-Med Monitor

The centre was recently emptied following a series of controversies, including overcrowding, allegations of drug sales by guards to detainees, asylum seekers being left stranded in central London after their release, and outbreaks of infectious diseases, as well as reported episodes of adults attacking minors.

The recent death of a migrant held at Manston—probably due to the acute bacterial infection diphtheria, which is highly contagious—is significative of the unhealthy, inadequate, and frightening conditions of a place that housed children. A Syrian boy who was placed there said, “I’ve never been more frightened than I was in Manston.” Added a boy from Sudan: “It’s the worst place I’ve ever been to.”

Everyone who was staying at the centre, which was originally supposed to be a temporary holding site for migrants (up to 24 hours only), has been placed in alternative accommodation.

Most of these migrants, including the minors, are in hotels now, but the practice of misreporting unaccompanied minors’ birthdates is still happening on a “horrifying scale”, with UK officials even ignoring or discounting ID documents proving individuals’ actual ages.

A 15-year-old Iranian boy who had an image of his passport and ID card said that Home Office officials were “not interested” in the documents; they told him it didn’t matter that they’d given him a new date of birth, because there would be a chance to correct the date later on.

On the contrary, however, once classified as adults, these minors lose access to accurate identification, family tracing, appointment of a guardian and legal representative, education, and special health services.  As a result, they find themselves at heightened risk of distress on account of abuse, violence, and other forms of exploitation, and in danger of eventually being dispersed to adult accommodation and detained as adults.

UK Home Office statistics record that 1,119 children entered detention in 2009. After a policy change under the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government and the opening of Cedars Pre-Departure Accommodation, the number of detained children fell substantially—standing at 100 in 2021. Yet now, with the illegitimate practise of misreporting ages, unaccompanied minors are more likely to be held in administrative detention as, and with, migrant adults.

“Immigration controls should never override the best interest of the child, and in the UK, one in six unaccompanied children in care is being reported missing,” said Michela Pugliese, Migration and Asylum Researcher at Euro-Med Monitor. “Now, minors wrongly classified as adults are the most at risk of going missing, precisely because they are unprotected, mistreated, and unaware of their rights due to UK authorities’ actions.

“Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to exploitation as they may appear to have adult bodies, and may perform many adult roles,” Pugliese added, “but these boys of 15-17 years old escaping Syria, Iran, or Afghanistan have not fully developed the emotional maturity and judgment—nor achieved the social status—of adults; they still need the special care and assistance given to younger children, as they are still developing their identities and learning essential skills.”

Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor calls on the UK to halt this illegitimate practise of purposefully altering birthdates and to respect the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it agreed to follow in 1991. In particular, it should be noted that Article 3 of the Convention states that “In all actions concerning children…the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration,” and Article 2 declares that “States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights…[of] each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind”.

Many unaccompanied and trafficked children arrive in the UK without documentation or with forged or counterfeit documents, but according to UK law, and in particular Section 51 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, where the age of a person is uncertain and there is reason to believe the individual is a child, that person is presumed to be a child in order to receive immediate access to assistance, support, and protection.