Child asylum seekers are being forced to hand over their social media account details in age dispute cases, in what has been branded a “clear violation of their privacy” and a potentially unlawful practice.
Young people seeking refuge in Britain, whose claims of being under 18 are disputed, are being ordered by the courts to provide log-in details for their Facebook and other social media accounts to local authorities on the basis that it will help social workers and immigration judges ascertain their age.
Lawyers say that since May of this year, immigration courts have taken the “blanket approach” of directing all asylum seekers in age dispute cases to allow their accounts and electronic communication to be “inspected”.
In some cases, the young person is ordered to provide the local authority with their usernames and passwords for the purposes of that review.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said that “interrogating” age disputed minors’ social media accounts as part of the process of determining their age in court was a “clear violation of their privacy”.
He added that it would “serve to undermine the trust between these vulnerable young people and the authorities charged with protecting them”.
“Determining an individual’s age is a notoriously difficult and subjective process. It is widely accepted that it is not possible to determine age by one single method, nor is it something that can be done quickly; rather it takes time and expertise to make the right decision,” he added.
“The surest way to ensure that children are protected and supported, and that children are identified as such, is by having social workers make these decisions following interviews with the young person and by gathering all other available information to allow them to take a holistic view.”
The government’s system for assessing the age of asylum seekers has been criticised for wrongly assessing children to be adults.
The Independent reported in January that child refugees had been forced to share rooms and even beds with adults they did not know, as increasing numbers were incorrectly placed in accommodation designed for over-18s.
Data is not published on the number of age dispute cases heard in the immigration courts, but experts believe there are more than 100 each year.
Nour Haidar, lawyer and legal officer at Privacy International, said the practice was “highly troubling” and amounted to “an interference of the right to privacy”.
“We think that this is very disproportionate use of the judicial power to undertake a fact-finding mission in this context. To tell someone ‘we have the right to open your personal communications to find out your age’ is completely disproportionate.
“It’s a grave interference. It has very serious implications for migrants’ ability to protect their personal and sensitive information, and to have fair hearings in relation to their age verification.”
Directions now being served by the court in age dispute cases, seen by The Independent, state: “The applicant and the respondent shall arrange a mutually convenient time and date for a review of the applicant’s social media accounts (the review to be undertaken by the local authority in the presence of the applicant).
“[…] The applicant shall provide the respondent with his username(s) and password(s) insofar as they are available to him, for the purposes of that review.”
Edward Taylor, of Osbornes Law, who is representing an age disputed individual who was forced to allow his social media accounts to be inspected, said the “intrusive blanket practice” represented “unlawful disproportionate interference” with putative children’s right to privacy.
“It essentially gives local authorities a mandate to conduct a fishing expedition in all cases of this kind as opposed to where there is foundation to potentially justify such an invasion of privacy,” he said.
“I am firmly of the view that such directions should only be considered on a case-by-case basis as to whether such an order would be appropriate and proportionate.”
A Judicial Office spokesperson said: “We would never comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”
From news to politics, travel to sport, culture to climate – The Independent has a host of free newsletters to suit your interests. To find the stories you want to read, and more, in your inbox, click here.