Annual Delegates Conference 2024: Imaging migrants to assess age is ‘inaccurate and unethical’

Attendees at ADC will hear debate on how NHS resources are wasted by use of radiographic imaging for assessing migrant ages

Published: 17 April 2024 Government & NHS

The use of radiographic imaging to assess the age of migrants is unethical, inaccurate and illegal, the SoR will hear today from a motion raised during the Annual Delegates Conference.

These efforts also risk increasing NHS waiting times and wasting valuable resource, proponents of the motion will warn during the final day of the Annual Delegates’ Conference (ADC), taking place at the Queen’s Hotel in Leeds from 15-17 April.

Earlier this year, legislation came into effect enabling the Home Office to use X-rays of wrists and teeth, and MRI scans of thighs and collarbones, to establish whether or not a migrant is younger than 16.

Greater risk

Migrants may also be given a dental X-ray to determine whether their wisdom teeth have emerged yet. Wisdom teeth usually erupt between the ages of 17 and 25. 

UK Council will ask conference delegates to oppose the legislation, arguing the risk of these scans is far greater than the risk of adult migrants being treated as children.

'Trivialises radiation exposure'

Richard Evans, CEO of the Society of Radiographers, said: “An X-ray of a child’s wrist can be used to assess age accurately up to puberty. After puberty, it’s unlikely to be accurate. Some people get their wisdom teeth much later than others. But some people’s wisdom teeth never emerge at all.

“The Society of Radiographers is opposed to scanning migrants because it trivialises ionising radiation exposure, because issues of consent haven’t been properly explored and because we’re unconvinced that there will be proper legal regulation of radiation exposure.”

Under UK law, even a low dose of ionising radiation is prohibited without consent from the patient. In these cases, where there is an actual dose of ionising radiation, it is vital that the X-ray is fully justified and that the person being X-rayed has given their consent. 

'Completely unjustifiable'

While MRI scans assessing age do not use ionising radiation, consent issues remain, and additional risks are associated with high magnetic fields used in these scans – scanning someone with metal in their body can cause injury and damage the equipment.

Mr Evans continued: “The assumption is that they’d be using MRI equipment that would otherwise be put to clinical use. When hundreds of thousands of people are waiting unacceptably long times for MRI scans, it’s completely unjustifiable to take up machine time to work out the age of migrants.”

Moreover, conducting these scans falls outside the terms of the contract of a clinical radiographer, Mr Evans explained. This means that any radiographer conducting the scans would have to agree to it voluntarily and be paid separately. 

'Every moral reason to object'

“No radiographer should feel coerced to conduct these scans during clinical time," Mr Evans added. "This new legislation risks compromising the safety of the migrants being scanned, and the care being given to other NHS patients. It’s nothing but a headline-grabbing measure. There’s every moral reason to object – and serious legal, ethical and health reasons to object, too.” 

The Society of Radiographers’ manifesto calls on all political parties to guarantee a safe service for patients and staff in all areas of radiography.

ADC provides members with the unique opportunity to help shape the strategic direction of the Society, and wider profession.

Bringing together up to 300 members, including regional representatives, regional and national officers and UK Council, ADC deals with current issues within the radiography profession, or matters of personal importance to members.

Find out more about ADC here.

UPDATE: This motion was carried.

(Image: Dan Kitwood/ Getty Images)