Child asylum seekers who have recently arrived in the UK on small boats say screening officials have put pressure on them to say they are adults, the Guardian has been told.
In some cases, the children say they were told that if they said they were over 18 they would be able to leave the troubled asylum processing site of Manston more quickly.
A recording said to be of a 16-year-old Eritrean boy speaking to a guard at Manston on 29 October about the pressure he says he was put under to say he was older was passed to the Guardian. The Refugee Council also provided information about three recent interviews their staff carried out with Kurdish boys from Iraq and Iran who made the same claims. A fifth child made the same allegation to the NGO Humans for Rights Network.
The Home Office says the claims, put to them by the Guardian, are unsubstantiated and that the Guardian has failed to provide “concrete evidence” to back up the allegations.
Mobile phones are confiscated from people arriving on small boats, so the children who made these claims had no opportunity to record initial conversations with officials.
In the recording at Manston, the Eritrean boy can be heard speaking to a guard who is questioning him about his journey, his age and his arrival in the UK: “First they say: ‘you are over 18’, I say I’m not. If you say you are under 18 you will be in problems. They say three times: ‘if you say more than 18, if you say 19 you will go out from this place’. Other friends, too, they say ‘we are 15, 16’, they say ‘you are lying’.”
One of the three Kurdish boys interviewed by Refugee Council staff said: “I was interviewed three times, they asked me all the time about my age. They told me unless you accept you’re an adult, we’re not going to do anything for you … My age is my age, I will never change my age. That’s my age, why should I lie?”
According to Refugee Council staff the boys spoke of being put under pressure to say that they were older, and told to “change” their date of birth. They spoke of being held at Manston in Kent under inhumane conditions.
One boy said: “When we first arrived, I stayed in Dover. They told us you need to change your date of birth to make you older. If you do make your date of birth older, then we’ll put you on the bus and you’ll go straight away. Because I was struggling, I was very cold, I told them whatever you decide to put me, they should do it, I just wanted to get out.”
Two recent reports from the Refugee Council and Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit found that children being wrongly classified as adults was placing them at risk of abuse and neglect. After detailed age assessments, most of those initially assessed to be adults by the Home Office were later determined to be children.
Renae Mann, executive director of services at the Refugee Council, said: “This autumn, our staff have seen unprecedented and overwhelming numbers of unaccompanied refugee children who are being incorrectly identified by immigration officers as adults. We have recently supported over 70 children in one adult hotel alone. Some children who were housed at Manston told us that they were pressured by officials to say that they were adults with the promise that they would be moved more quickly to adult accommodation. This is extremely concerning and risks children’s safety.”
Maddie Harris, of Humans for Rights Network, said: “It is in the interest of the government to treat these children as adults as it provides them with opportunity to remove them from the UK. We have already been contacted by children treated as adults with letters stating the Home Office’s intention to remove them to Rwanda. We were also told by a child who arrived recently, that upon arrival in Dover he was told by officials that if he did not say he was an adult, he would be held in Manston for some weeks and that nobody would help him.”
The Home Office said: “We have not been able to investigate these unsubstantiated claims put to us by the Guardian as they have failed to provide us with any concrete evidence. We take allegations like this extremely seriously. The safeguarding and welfare of unaccompanied asylum-seeker children is our utmost priority.
“Children are at risk when asylum-seeking adults claim to be children, or children are wrongly treated as adults. All those who claim to be unaccompanied children are age-assessed by officials. Suggestions that border force officials asked asylum seekers to lie about their age are baseless speculation.”