Minister wrong to claim UK is only European country not using scientific age assessments for asylum seekers

3 August 2023
What was claimed

The UK is the only European country at the moment that does not use scientific age assessment methods to determine if asylum seekers are under or over 18.

Our verdict

This is incorrect. The UK is not the only country in Europe that doesn’t use scientific age assessment methods. At least two other European countries, Ireland and Serbia, don’t use these methods.

We’re the only European country at the moment actually not to use scientific age assessment methods to determine if somebody is under or over 18.

On 6 July, policing minister Chris Philp MP appeared on Sky News and made a number of claims about asylum seekers. Following a fact check of some other claims he made about the UNHCR and the number of people crossing the English Channel in small boats this year, we have also been investigating another claim Mr Philp made in the same interview. 

Discussing the government’s Illegal Migration Bill, Mr Philp claimed the UK is “the only European country” not currently using scientific age assessment methods to determine if asylum seekers are under or over 18. Mr Philp was incorrect, as at least two other countries in Europe, Ireland and Serbia, do not currently use scientific age assessment methods.

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Age assessment techniques 

The government’s Nationality and Borders Act 2022 allows the introduction of scientific tests to measure the age of asylum seekers who say they are children. 

These scientific assessments—also referred to as biological or medical methods—are already in use in other countries and can include X-rays of wisdom teeth, X-rays of hand and wrist bones, and MRI scans of knees or the collar bone. 

While the majority of EU countries including France and Germany use medical age assessments at various stages of the asylum application process, there is no EU-wide practice in the field of age determination. A parliamentary research briefing to accompany the Nationality and Borders Bill noted that 22 of the 27 EU countries were using at least one medical age assessment method as of February 2021. 

Mr Philp was correct that the UK is currently not using scientific age assessments, though it is legally permitted and the government has said it intends to begin using such assessments this year. He’s incorrect, however, to say that the UK “is the only European country actually not to use scientific methods” to determine the age of child asylum seekers.

Ireland doesn’t use these tests, though like the UK it is legally able to do so.

Tusla, Ireland’s child and family agency which carries out age assessments, told Full Fact: “While there is legal provision for a medical examination under Section 24 of the International Protection Act 2015 it is confined, under the Act, to very specific circumstances and does not give the Minister or an international protection officer a free-standing ability to determine the age of an unaccompanied minor. It is only where Tusla has taken the child into care and made an application on behalf of the child for international protection under s.15(4) of the International Protection Act 2015, that the IPO (or the Minister for Justice) can seek to have the child examined under s.24 of the 2015 Act. This provision has not been used to date.”

Alan O’Leary, Policy and Advocacy Officer at the Irish Refugee Council, also told us: “Ireland does not use medical methods such as X-rays or medical examinations to determine age. An assessment in Ireland is based on available documentation as well as a conversation between the young person and qualified social workers about the family, social, educational, etc., history of the young person.” 

Ireland’s age assessment procedure was also discussed in recent evidence given to a joint committee of the Oirechtas, Ireland’s national parliament, last month. Lorna Kavanagh, a manager from Tusla, told the committee: “Other member states use medical assessments. That is not the course of action here in Ireland. It is cautioned against because of the two-year margin of error for conducting medical assessments on young people presenting as minors.”

Serbia is another country that doesn’t use scientific age assessments to determine the age of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the country, though Serbia does receive very few applications compared to other European nations.

When we asked the Home Office about Mr Philps’ claim, it did not directly respond to his assertion but said that scientific age assessments are widely used in countries across Europe.

A  Home Office spokesperson added: “Given the very difficult task of assessing someone’s age, we are considering introducing scientific age assessment methods to widen the evidence available to decision-makers and improve their decisions.”

Image courtesy of Chris McAndrew

We deserve better than bad information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted Chris Philp to request a correction regarding this claim.

The Home Office responded acknowledging our letter and confirmed that the UK is one of the very few European countries whIch does not use scientific methods of age assessment.

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