The Humans for Rights Network has identified an increasing number of cases in which child refugees who have arrived in the United Kingdom on small boats are being held in adult prisons alongside sex offenders. Several of these minors, particularly those from Sudan and South Sudan, appear to have been victims of trafficking or exploitation.
The majority of the children have journeyed perilously from Libya to the UK, seeking refuge and safety. Disturbingly, the rights organisation found that fourteen unaccompanied minors, some as young as 14, were placed in prisons with foreign adult inmates.
Those sent to adult prisons were among the most “profoundly harmed,” Maddie Harris of the network is reported by the Guardian as saying. “These children are locked down in their cells, not knowing who to call for help, prevented from adequately accessing legal advice and from challenging the arbitrary decision made about their ages by immigration officials upon arrival in the UK. These are children looking for safety who instead find themselves in an adult prison, denied that protection and exposed to great harm.”
She added that the group has worked with more than 1,000 age-disputed children.
Recent data reported by the Observer revealed that the Home Office’s age assessment practices have been questionable at best. From the 1,416 age assessments performed over five years up to April 2023 by specialist social workers, 809 were confirmed as minors. In certain councils, every young individual assessed was identified as a child.
According to Syd Bolton, co-director of Equal Justice for Migrant Children, “Age assessment has developed into the most monstrous of procedural devices.” He described the practice as a “deliberate barrier to accessing asylum protection and denying young asylum seekers access to children’s services. It is a major tool of the Home Office in discrediting an asylum claim.”
Recent inspections of HMP Elmley, one of three prisons for men that form the Sheppey Cluster in Kent, revealed the extent of the problem. A quarter of the surveyed inmates admitted to feeling unsafe, with the prison still holding 70 individuals convicted of sexual offences. Details emerged just days ago of a paedophile being held at Elmley who was convicted of 14 sex offences and found guilty of abusing two children.
As calls mount for an immediate Home Office investigation, a government spokesperson said: “Assessing age is a challenging but vital process to identify genuine children and stop abuse of the system. We must prevent adults claiming to be children, or children being wrongly treated as adults; both present serious safeguarding risks. To further protect children, we are strengthening the age-verification process by using scientific measures such as X-rays.”