Great Britain: Asylum seekers must hand over access data for age assessment

Facebook login on a smartphone
In the past, authorities had forced refugees to reveal the PINs for their cell phones. In spring, a court ruled that this was unlawful.
(Source: IMAGO / ZUMA Press)

Potentially underage asylum seekers in the UK will have to hand over their social media access data if there is any doubt about their declared age. This was reported by the British newspaper The Independent. Experts consider the procedure to be unlawful.

Since May, courts would order blanket checks of social media accounts in cases like this.

Those affected must then hand over their usernames and passwords to the local authorities. The review then takes place in the presence of the refugees, he said. Officials are supposed to look for clues in the accounts and electronic communications about the age of the individuals – making it easier to determine their age.

It remains unclear how many people are involved. According to the Independent, official figures on how many age determinations there are each year do not exist. The Ministry of Justice would not comment on the approach to the newspaper.

Unaccompanied minor refugees are under special protection. Their deportation from Great Britain can only be ordered in exceptional cases, for example if they commit a criminal offence.

“Violation of privacy”

Enver Solomon, executive director of the British Refugee Council, criticized the procedure to the Independent as a “clear violation of privacy.” In addition, he said, it undermines the trust of people seeking protection in the authorities responsible for their protection.

Solomon also pointed out to the Independent that determining a person’s age is a difficult 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.” Making the right determination takes time and expertise, he said. The surest way to determine age is for social workers to talk with young people. They need to gather all available information to make an assessment, he said.

Nour Haidar, a lawyer with the human rights organization Privacy International, called the procedure “highly disturbing.” She said it was a “serious invasion” of privacy. “To tell someone ‘we have the right to open your personal communications to find out your age’ is completely disproportionate.”

Forcing refugees to hand over their credentials has serious implications for their ability to “protect their personal and sensitive information” and receive a fair hearing regarding age determination, he said.

Attorney Edward Taylor, who represents a person forced to hand over their access data, also criticized the “unlawful, disproportionate” intrusion. Authorities would be allowed to conduct blanket searches for incriminating material, he said. Taylor demanded that orders to investigate social media accounts must always be examined on a case-by-case basis for their proportionality.

Unlawful cell phone exploitation

The British government has long been criticized for its handling of underage asylum seekers. In January, the Independent had reported that hundreds of unaccompanied asylum seekers had been placed in adult accommodation despite claiming to be children or teenagers. The Refugee Council had spoken of an “alarming” number of people who were classified as adults by authorities, but later actually turned out to be minors.

In June, refugee organizations had also accused the government of attributing a “default age” of 23 to children under 18 – and of wanting to deport them. They called it a “worrying pattern.”

Between April and November 2020, immigration officials in Dover had confiscated phones from asylum seekers and forced those seeking protection to reveal their PINs. They were threatened with prosecution if they did not hand over the PIN. The Home Office had argued that officials could thus find clues to criminal smugglers. To do this, the officers had copied personal information such as emails and photos from the phones.

The High Court of Justice had ruled in March that the Home Office should not have ordered the blanket seizure and data analysis of asylum seekers’ smartphones. They saw the action as a violation of the right to respect for private life enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. (js)