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Within hours of a single conversation, a Tusla social worker had decided that a young asylum seeker who came here alone was lying about his age.

On 28 December 2022, the social worker wrote to a staff member at the International Protection Office (IPO), saying that they had seen the boy that same day, and decided that he was not eligible to receive support from Tusla.

“We would be obliged to review our opinion should he provide more information or documentary evidence of his age, and your office feels it is necessary to do so,” says the letter.

But the reasoning and process by which exactly the social worker arrived at his initial decision is, as in past cases, opaque.

During his December assessment, the social worker told the boy that he couldn’t be underage because he could grow a beard, the boy said on 28 March.

The social worker told him he couldn’t be from Sudan too, he said.

The Tusla worker said something along the lines of that he knew people from Sudan, and they’re very tall and very dark, and his Black skin was too light, said the boy, as he swayed on a swivel chair in a room upstairs at Connolly Books in Temple Bar.

“I said, ‘Do you go to Sudan before?’ He said, no. I said, ‘If you go to Sudan, you will find we live like mix,’ ” said the boy.

Tusla still has no guidelines for assessing the ages of young asylum seekers who arrive alone and say they are children. The agency has said that it is working to draw those up, and expects them to be in place in the second quarter of this year. It hasn’t given an exact date, though.

The young asylum seeker from Sudan – who is living in a city centre hostel sharing a room with adult men because of the December decision – says that he is a child. He now has a pdf of his government-issued ID to support that.

But there is also, still, no clear appeals process.

A spokesperson for Tusla did not directly respond to a query asking if it records or keeps transcripts of age-assessment interviews so those who wish to review them can do that.

It can’t comment on individual cases, they said. “This is to protect the privacy of the children and families we work with.”

“Tusla continues to work with the Department of Justice (DOJ), [Department of Children and Equality] and others to ensure that statutory obligations are met in relation to the needs of children and young people,” the spokesperson said.

Navigating Doubt

An age-assessment guide from the Council of Europe for policy-makers says that age estimates for young people should be based on informed decisions made after a comprehensive analysis of physical and psychological factors.

They should be “conducted by specialist paediatricians or other professionals who are skilled in combining different aspects of development”, it says.

The young asylum seeker said he wasn’t sure about the purpose of the chat in December, which turned out to be an age-assessment interview.

He thought it was an asylum interview at first, he says. “So I told him everything.”

During the session, the Tusla worker appeared angry, he says, and accused him of lying when he said he couldn’t understand some things.

The way the boy remembers it, he said something like how can you speak English and not understand some things.

The boy says he told him that sometimes he understands and other times not so much. “He was very angry.”

He asked the social worker why he was angry, the boy said. “He said, ‘No, no, I’m not angry, I was joking,’” said the boy, clasping sheets of a comic strip that he had picked up earlier during a language lesson for English practice.

Once the assessment session had wrapped up, the worker took him to the IPO office on Mount Street Lower, said the boy. He told him that he shouldn’t worry because he had a “good story”, he said.

After that, the boy asked his surviving relatives in Sudan to try to get documentation showing his age.

They sent a pdf of a Sudanese government-issued identification document, a record issued based on somebody’s birth certificate and certificate of citizenship.

It shows his birth date in March 2006, meaning he would have been 16 when he had the interview and is 17 now.

The document also includes the name of his parents, his national number, marital status, gender and occupation, which is listed as student.

Jennifer O’Leary, a woman advocating for the young asylum seeker, said the Sudanese authorities would only give a pdf to the boy’s grandparents.

“His sick grandmother, every time she went to the office, they kept saying, ‘Come back the next day, come back the next day,’” said O’Leary. “And then they won’t give a physical copy.”

Pushing for an Appeal

Between 2016 to 2020, Tusla assessed the ages of 115 young people and ruled that 48 of those were minors, its official figures show.

More recently, the number of unaccompanied children arriving in Ireland has spiked. In 2022, 597 children were referred to Tusla’s unit for separated children, a spokesperson has said.

But the agency won’t give figures for how many of those it deemed after assessment to be children. Or, how many appealed that decision.

Tusla does not currently have a clear route available for those who want to appeal a social worker’s decision.

Young asylum seekers without an advocate may not get a second chance to make their cases that they are kids and end up living with adults, unable to go to school.

They also wouldn’t get the extra benefit of the doubt in asylum claims that is granted to children or the same rights to family reunification.

For months, O’Leary has pushed for an appeal for the young asylum seeker from Sudan, writing back and forth to Tusla, the Department of Children, and to non-profits supporting young people and migrants.

The boy was formally invited for another age assessment on 16 March, which didn’t go ahead, and another on 12 April.

He also got a sympathetic letter dated 1 March from a principal social worker in Tusla saying the agency had prioritised his case.

“I’m sorry that things have been hard and that the previous assessment didn’t provide you with the outcome you wanted and that you felt some things could have been handled better,” it says.

A spokesperson for Tusla has said that an appeals procedure is part of its new age-assessment process, slated for roll-out this quarter.

O’Leary is concerned, she says, that the young asylum seeker – who slept on the streets the night of arrival and in tents in Knockalisheen Co. Clare during cold winter days between 3 to 16 January – has at the moment to share a room with adult men in a city centre hostel.

“I hung out with a lot of lads when we were late teens; they all had pubescent-like moustache and beard,” said O’Leary.

“There’s an adultification of Black and Brown children happening here,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary said the young asylum seeker only received a PPS number on the morning of 3 April. Without it, O’Leary hadn’t been able to enrol him in a city school.

“His whole life is, like, majority of the day, he’s doing nothing, and he wants to go to school and play football,” said O’Leary on 28 March.

The situation has profoundly impacted the young boy, O’Leary said, to the point that he became suicidal.

Upstairs at Connolly Books, the boy pulled up Google Translate on his phone, typed something and held it up: “Depression,” it said.

Shamim Malekmian

Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at

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