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British government loses key vote on dental age checks for undocumented immigrants

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The British Dental Association is making strides in ensuring that only scientific methods deemed ethical and accurate are used to perform age checks of undocumented immigrants. (Image: Eugen Haag/Shutterstock)

LONDON, UK: The British Dental Association (BDA) is celebrating the victory in the House of Lords of the passing of a key amendment challenging a government plan to use dental radiographs to verify the ages of undocumented migrants. The issue has been on the radar of the BDA since 2016 after a politician suggested using radiographs to check that incoming refugees were not adults posing as children. The BDA was quick to condemn this method of assessment as inaccurate and unethical.

Supporters of the use of dental radiographs claim they will help social workers verify that migrants are the ages they allege, and that no adults would be taking advantage of resources or services reserved for children.

When the use of radiographs was first suggested, Dr Ruth Allen, the chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said that the use of medical tests for age verification was “very intrusive and could be retraumatising”. Other groups, such as the Council of Europe Children’s Rights Division, have called into question the ethicality of the proposal, stating that age checks were not sufficient cause to expose an individual to ionising radiation to merely supplement the verification process already conducted by social workers. The group cited a report by the Council of Europe in which it was emphasised that it would be a conflict of medical ethics to expose individuals to radiation for non-medical purposes.

For new rulings on migration cases, the home secretary has the authority to choose the scientific methods of age assessment to be used, according to Part 4 of the Nationality and Borders Bill. The BDA lobbied extensively for amendment, emphasising the importance of using validated scientific methods in migration cases. Dental radiographs are not considered a valid or accurate method for assessing age, according to the BDA.

Within the proposed amendment, the BDA submitted the requirement “that any scientific method used for determining age has to first be deemed both ethical and accurate beyond reasonable doubt by the relevant dental, medical and scientific bodies”. To that end, amendment sponsors also pressed the minister to make sure that dental organisations would be part of the Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee.

Lord Alex Carlile, a British barrister, and crossbench member of the House of Lords said: “Age assessment techniques must be proportionate and fair. If any intrusive measures are to be taken—including dental X-rays—that must be based on proven evidence of scientific reliability, not vague opinions that it might add something.”

The new Clause 64A, a combination of the key amendments on scientific methods of age assessment, won the majority support of the members of the House of Lords from all parties and must go on for approval in the House of Commons, a chamber of publicly elected members of the UK parliament.

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