The Scottish Government has accused the Home Office of using children as "pawns” in a culture war over controversial plans to use MRI scanners to determine the age of asylum seekers.

Natalie Don, the Minister for Children, said the proposals put forward by the UK Government were  ”incompatible with the progressive, inclusive values of people in Scotland.”

But the Home Office said the use of the medical test was necessary to “remove incentives for adults to pretend to be children in order to remain in the UK.”

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Immigration Minister Robert Jenirick confirmed the plans to use X-rays of teeth, hands and wrists and MRI scans of knees and collar bones to determine the age of asylum seekers last month as part of the Illegal Migration Act 2023.

Under the new laws, anyone who refuses an age assessment will have this counted against them when their asylum claims are processed. 

According to Home Office figures, between January 2016 and June 2023, of the 30,114 asylum applications made by unaccompanied under 18s, age was disputed in 11,275 cases with 5,551 found to be adults.

There are fears from some refugee charities that the scans can only give a possible range, rather than an exact age.

They worry that the dire consequences of an incorrect age assessment could lead to minors running away from care settings rather than taking the risk.

That, the Humans For Rights Network, said could  ultimately force the children “into harmful exploitative situations.”

Both the Society of Radiographers and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have also criticised these measures.

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In a letter to Mr Jenrick, Ms Don says the Scottish Government “is deeply troubled by the Home Office’s pursuit of this policy.” 

She added that age assessments were “best led by social workers with care and wellbeing needs at the forefront of the process.”

Ms Don said in Scotland there had been cases of “young people presenting to local authorities having been incorrectly age assessed via a ‘brief enquiry’ at the port of entry and subsequently placed in adult asylum accommodation.”

The Herald:

She told The Herald on Sunday: “The Scottish Government is fundamentally opposed to these controversial plans which risk the rights of children who’ve already been through unimaginable hardship, threatens them with being forced to leave the country and which have been condemned by human rights groups across the world.

“The UK Government is using children who’ve already suffered incredible trauma as pawns, as they continue to fuel a culture war in an attempt to appeal to the most extreme voices.

“The Scottish Government will continue to oppose these reprehensible plans.  How we treat unaccompanied asylum seeking children is a question of values – and the values of the UK Government are incompatible with the progressive, inclusive values of people in Scotland.”

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Responding to Ms Don’s comments, a Home Office spokesperson said:  “It’s vital that we remove incentives for adults to pretend to be children in order to remain in the UK. 

“We are strengthening the age verification process through the National Age Assessment Board, introducing scientific assessments, such as x-rays, and measures under the Illegal Migration Act which will help ensure assessments are robust and further protect children.

"We will only treat someone claiming to be a child as an adult if two officers have separately determined that the individual's physical appearance and demeanour very strongly suggests they are significantly over 18 years of age.”