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The child and family agency Tusla still doesn’t have guidelines for assessing the age of asylum-seeking young people who travel to Ireland without their parents.
When the state disputes the ages of young migrants – either based on what they look like or because they don’t have documents showing dates of birth – the Department of Justice’s International Protection Office (IPO) or border guards refer them to Tusla to judge their ages.
If Tusla decides they’re older than 18, they must live in direct provision centres among adults – among other serious impacts.
In November 2021, in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request seeking its guidelines for age assessment, Tusla said it didn’t have any but was drawing up a draft procedure.
Last week, a spokesperson for the agency said it had anticipated wrapping up work on the new procedure in 2022, but things didn’t go as planned.
The number of referrals to its unaccompanied-migrant kids unit climbed up by 400 percent last year, they said, so staff were busy. Also, consulting with “key external stakeholders … inclusive of relevant NGOs” took time, they said.
It is finalising the new procedure now and aims to start training and briefings on it in the coming weeks, they said. “And it will be fully implemented in Q2 2023,” the spokesperson said.
Fiona Hurley, CEO of migrants’ rights non-profit NASC, says it is vital that guidelines and formal procedures for age assessment are brought in, given the impact of Tusla’s age assessment decisions on young people’s lives.
“The consequences of that decision are that the young person may lose out on family reunification rights, additional protections during their international protection claim and will find themselves in the direct provision system,” she said.
In 2022, 597 kids were referred to Tusla’s unit for separated children seeking asylum, said a spokesperson for the agency.
A spokesperson for Tusla said the unit responsible is too busy to give data on how many of those referred in 2022 were found to be children. “It is not possible to generate the data at this time.”
But between 2016 to 2020, Tusla assessed the ages of 115 young people, deciding that 48 of those were minors.
Although Tusla has been assessing asylum-seekers’ ages with no guidelines or policy for years,Section 24 of the International Protection Act puts the minister for justice or an international protection officer in charge of judging ages.
Irish officials said that, yes, while the law technically puts the International Protection Office in charge, they rely on Tusla’s professional opinion, according to a response to an EU Commission query released under the FOI Act in 2021.
Meanwhile, the law keeps things ambiguous when it comes to the procedure itself, only mentioning that if it involves medical exams, a registered medical professional should do it, says Hurley, the CEO of NASC.
The legal inconsistency coupled with a lack of guidelines means that Tusla social workers judge the age of asylum-seeking young people or decide if they need to be physically examined, Hurley says.
“This decision completely changes the lives of the young people whose age is in question,” she says. “It is not clear what training or support social workers get to make these decisions.”
The medical examination of young people to determine their age is a thorny issue raising questions around ethics.
Some European paediatricians have said it’s morally reckless to examine patients who are not ill, asking colleagues not to participate in age-determination exams.
Back in 2009, Ahmad Siyar Gholam-Qadar, an asylum-seeking child from Afghanistan, sat in age-assessment interviews and went through physical exams as part of the process.
“They sent me to a doctor in Mercy [University] Hospital, Cork to run an X-ray and asked me so many questions to see how old I am,” says Gholam-Qadar.
While waiting for the outcome of his age assessment, Gholam-Qadar says he met another Afghan boy who wasn’t believed because he looked older.
“And they didn’t provide support for him as an unaccompanied minor, and he was living in direct provision all the time till he got leave to remain,” says Gholam-Qadar.
Young Afghan migrants, like Gholam-Qadar at the time, often face age disputes upon arrival into the country.
Of the 20 young Afghan asylum seekers referred for age assessment between 2019 to 2020, only six were found to be minors, according to IPO figures released under FOI Act.
Hard to Fight
Hurley, the CEO of NASC, says that under the current system, it’s very difficult to challenge the outcome of an age assessment.
Last summer, a 16-year-old asylum-seeking child, was left to live on his own in a Travelodge in Castleknock, where he shared a room with an adult man, even after he presented his birth certificate to IPO officials. (He was later moved.)
A spokesperson for Tusla said it’s planning to introduce an appeals process, among other things, as part of the new procedure that it’s been working on since 2021.
So, “if a young person is not satisfied with the outcome of the assessment, there is an appeals process, independent of the assessing team”, they said.
“Improving the level and accessibility of information provided to the young person, the availability of legal representation, an advocate or interpreter as required” are among the other planned changes, the spokesperson said.
Gholam-Qadar says the appeal won’t help older kids because it would likely take some time to process.
“And by the time the 17-year-old will become 18, and he will no longer be an unaccompanied minor,” he says.