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On Monday afternoon, Mthokozisi Ncube stepped out of a hotel on Navan Road wearing blue slippers and no socks, and a short-sleeved white t-shirt with a yellow emoji face and the word “drew” where the lips should be.
Ncube has a birth certificate that says he is just 16 years old.
But since late May, Ncube, who came to Ireland from Zimbabwe without his parents to seek asylum, has been living among adults at the Travelodge in Castleknock, sharing a room with a grown man.
“I got a letter from Tusla saying I’m not a minor,” says Ncube.
So he was sent out of a care home to an adult pre-reception centre and then another, before being sent to the Travelodge.
Migrant kids who arrive in Ireland without their parents and aren’t initially believed about their age live among adults until officials decide what to do.
Age disputes like that can imperil children’s safety, says Brian Collins, advocacy service manager at migration support non-profit Nasc.
Nasc knows of cases where kids stayed in adult direct provision centres, unable to appeal the government’s age decisions.
“And therefore unable to access the support and aftercare provided to separated children,” said Collins.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Equality hasn’t responded to queries sent on 4 September about Ncube’s case.
But on 10 May, in response to queries about a similar case, they said no kids live in International Protection Accommodation Services’ (IPAS’) accommodation centres – in other words, in direct provision or pre-reception and emergency centres.
“There may however be persons not deemed eligible and still self-declaring as minors who are reside [sic] in IPAS accommodation who are appealing the outcome of their eligibility assessments,” they said. They didn’t say how many of these cases there are.
Disbelief and Limbo
When he arrived in Ireland on 10 May, Ncube was at first put under the care of Tusla, the state’s child and family agency, he says. “I was in a care home for two weeks.”
Then he got a letter, he says. In it, he says, a Tusla official said that there’s no proof he’s a child because he’d travelled without his birth certificate or any other ID showing his date of birth.
Next stop, after two weeks, was CityWest, he says. “I stayed there, Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” says Ncube, counting with his fingers.
Later, they sent him to the Red Cow Moran Hotel, another IPAS pre-reception centre. Since late May, he’s been at the Navan Road Travelodge.
Ncube asked his family back home to send his birth certificate to prove his age, which he showed to officials in the International Protection Office (IPO) on 31 May, he says.
But he hasn’t heard back from Tusla or the IPO, he says, so doesn’t know if they’ve accepted it as proof. “I have no idea,” said Ncube.
A Tusla spokesperson had previously said it’s not responsible for deciding whether asylum seekers are adults or children.
But a spokesperson for the Department of Justice has said its IPO office relies on Tusla’s age recommendations unless someone submits compelling evidence to contradict them.
Ncube says he doesn’t really mind living with adults because he doesn’t want to talk to anyone anyway. “I’m anti-social.” But it was nicer to live at the care home with people in his own age group, said Ncube, smiling.
The appropriateness and safety of putting people waiting for officials to tell them how old they are into accommodation centres with adults have been questioned in other cases too, though.
On 26 April, Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly asked Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman, a Green Party TD, in the Dáil how many people were in similar circumstances and what supports they had.
Later, O’Reilly said she’d asked the question because she’d learned about an Afghan child living alone in a city hotel.
“This child had literally nobody to check on them or work with them and they were only found when the support services for the Ukrainian refugees arrived to the hotel,” said O’Reilly in an email on 2 May.
O’Gorman told O’Reilly that Tusla should provide the figures she’d asked for, as to how many people were affected.
But he told the Dáil that by 26 April, 103 non-Ukrainian unaccompanied kids were referred to Tusla and of those, 95 were in its care.
He said the figure doesn’t include Ukrainian kids because “these children are granted one year’s Temporary Protection”.
He mentioned how kids get Tusla-appointed social workers but didn’t mention age disputes and what happens if someone isn’t believed.
Last year, Tusla said it doesn’t have any guidelines on how to assess the age of young asylum seekers, in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
But it does so anyway, and decided between 2016 to 2020 that only 48 of 115 people referred for assessment were indeed children.
Collins, the advocacy service manager at Nasc, says Tusla doesn’t have age-assessment guidelines because there’s nothing in the law that allows the agency to do these assessments.
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Equality said that what Tusla does isn’t really age assessment, though.
It’s “an assessment to determine if the young person is eligible for the protections afforded to children in the State by the Child Care Act 1991,” they said on 10 May. Being eligible means being accepted as underage, the spokesperson said.
The International Protection Act 2015 puts the Minister for Justice in charge of age assessments, Collins says.
But either Tusla or the Department of Justice needs to draw up clear policies and guidelines in this area urgently, he says.
“As, clearly, child protection and issues of best interests of the child arise,” said Collins.
Ncube doesn’t know if he needs to go through an age assessment process, he said, sitting on a wooden bench at a table in the hotel’s backyard, the wind fluttering his sleeves.
The IPO has granted him a blue card, one given to asylum seekers as they enter the system to wait their turn for interviews.
Ncube says he wants to know if officials believe his age. If they don’t, he loses the benefit of the doubt in asylum claims and would miss out on the right to reunite with parents and siblings.
He also would have to wait longer in the system – still, of course, alone. “I think if they accepted my age, it’d be faster,” he says.
UPDATE 11 Sept. 2022: Tusla contacted Ncube after this article was first published on Wednesday and told him they now accept that he is a child and will take him into care, Ncube says.