C Explanatory memorandum
by Ms Doris Fiala, rapporteur
1. As the European migration and
refugee “crisis” continues, more unaccompanied children are embarking on
the dangerous journey to Europe. The overall increase in migration
and the difficulties of the journey make it ever more likely that
families will be separated, leaving young people to find their way
2. With the increasing numbers of unaccompanied and separated
children arriving in Europe, real challenges arise for the authorities
tasked with identifying, protecting and supporting them. Particularly
with the recent developments of the crisis in the context of the
partial or total closure of routes across Europe, the treatment
of children at certain border crossings has been raised by non-governmental
organisations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International as a major human
3. Questionable conduct towards these children, combined with
the lack of an appropriate and safe process of identification and
reception, can push children to flee from one European country to
another, seeking protection.
4. It is therefore critical for children to be protected appropriately,
and to receive the services they need and are entitled to, such
as decent accommodation and school placements. For this, it is necessary
to determine the age of anyone seeking asylum who may be a child.
In this context, the question of children being seen first
and foremost as children and second as migrants, as reflected in
Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the
has even greater significance. There
have been serious concerns raised by the Council of Europe about
the treatment of refugees by some European States.Note
6. Currently there is no process of assessment, medical or otherwise,
which can determine, with 100% accuracy, the exact age of a child.
This has led to considerable variation in the methods and quality
of age assessments undertaken in European States.
7. This level of variation leads to a range of negative outcomes
for children such as their being misidentified as adults and detained
before and during the process of age assessment. Children who are
disbelieved risk falling out of a European State’s child care arrangements
and potentially going missing.
8. Along with the risk that the range of rights that should be
afforded to a child as a child may not be provided, certain age-assessment
processes can even, in their design and implementation, traumatise
9. This report reflects findings based on European States’ contributions,
fieldwork, and testimony from children. It reflects how good practice,
stemming from holistic child-centred age assessment, can increase
the speed by which child support agencies meet the needs of children
and mitigate the range of negative outcomes.
10. I also highlight how a holistic approach to age assessment
can, in terms of operational and strategic partnerships, foster
better working co-operation and facilitate the development of policies
and procedures which reflect and include the core principles pertaining
to the rights of the child.
The Parliamentary Assembly has adopted a number of resolutions
where the problem of age assessment of migrant children has been
raised, including the recent Resolution
on the alternatives to immigration detention of children.
Rapporteur Manlio Di Stefano’s report on “Harmonising the protection
of unaccompanied minors in Europe”Note
sets out a number of issues requiring
action, including the uneven transposition of international standards
into national regulatory frameworks and the need to harmonise procedures
involving unaccompanied migrant children. In the report “Migrant
children: what rights at 18?”,Note
recommendations were made on such
issues as incorrect determination of age,Note
use of physical appearance as a sole method of age assessment,Note
and the principle
of the benefit the of doubt being applied.Note
The Assembly outlined a number of safeguards pertaining to
age assessments: they should only be carried out if a reasonable
doubt exists; by an independent authority; with the informed consent
of the child or the guardian; and must be based on a multidisciplinary
approach, using the least intrusive methods compliant with medical
ethical standards. The outcome of this process should be subject
to appeal, and the benefit of the doubt in favour of the child (presumption
of minority). In Resolution
“Unaccompanied children in Europe: issues of arrival,
stay and return”, a set of 15 common principles was established
which member States were invited to observe. It concludes that “unaccompanied
children must be treated first and foremost as children, not as
13. I take the opportunity of this report to pay tribute to the
Parliamentary Campaign to End Immigration Detention of Children
which has been run by the Parliamentary Assembly over the last two
years and which has put a special focus on the problems related
to the age assessment of unaccompanied migrant children. In the
framework of the campaign two round tables were organised on this
topic and a stocktaking study of Council of Europe member States’
age-assessment policies and procedures, identifying those practices respectful
of children’s rights, was prepared.
14. The present report builds on the substantial work of the Assembly
in the area of child protection, age assessment and the treatment
of unaccompanied and separated children in terms of their rights
as children. Through a harmonisation approach, this report seeks
to add value to this work and to promote improved age-assessment
practices, and proposes measures for consideration which could inform
arrangements pertaining to unaccompanied and separated children
and enhance inter-agency co-operation.
15. I would like to thank Mr Philip Ishola, Chair of the Age Assessment
Strategic Oversight Group in the United Kingdom, for his valuable
contribution to this report.
2 Figures for unaccompanied children
In 2016 across the European
Union, 63 290Note
children were recorded as claiming asylum and almost 96 465 unaccompanied
children applied for asylum in the European Union in 2015.Note
The present migration
and refugee crisis poses real challenges for those organisations
tasked with identifying children so as to ensure that the needs
of the child are met both in terms of their immediate physical and
mental well-being and their rights as enshrined in child protection
and rights law.
17. There is no comprehensive data available on the number of
arrivals of documented and undocumented children in Europe which
includes arrivals by air and land and arrivals via irregular methods
which often involve smuggling and trafficking of human beings, the
latter being difficult to identify and track. The number of asylum applications
lodged by unaccompanied children is used to provide an indication
of the actual total figure of unaccompanied children arriving in
Europe. However this does not necessarily provide an accurate picture
as some children who continue their onward irregular journey do
not apply for asylum at all or are recorded as adults when they
may be children. In addition, due to different definitions and national
procedures and practices, collecting accurate data on unaccompanied
and separated children is particularly challenging (for example
separated children being registered as either accompanied or unaccompanied).
framework and the position of European institutions on age assessment
The UNCRC provisions are used
as a reference guide and influence policies in most European States. However,
even when referenced, the UNCRC is not necessarily transposed into
actual guidelines or practice within the statutory systems of child
protection related to the asylum and immigration system. This lack
of incorporation can perpetuate a situation of confusion and conflict
between national laws and the UNCRC. This confusion and conflict
is apparent where the principle of a child being seen first as a
child and only then as a migrant, reflected in Article 2 of the
is undermined in terms of how
children are assessed and by whom, the child’s best interest, the
services provided to a child and the agency which has ultimate responsibility for
caring and supporting him/her.
The “Best interests of the child”Note
is one of the four general principles
of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. As such, it has to
be directly applicable before national courts. It is an interpretative
legal principle and a rule of procedure in any decision-making process
of States that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the
Rights of the Child.
20. The UNCRC’s Article 8 obliges an authority to respect “the
right of a child to preserve his or her identity” which includes
their age and date of birth.
21. Article 12 of the UNCRC states that “State Parties shall assure
to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the
right to express those views in all matters affecting the child,
the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with
the age and maturity of the child”.
22. Article 39 of the UNCRC states that “all appropriate measures
should be taken to promote physical and psychological recovery and
social reintegration of a child victim of any form of neglect, exploitation
23. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) General
Comment No. 6 (2005) recognises the importance of identifying, as
a best interest consideration, not only the status of a child but
their age. General Comment No. 6 also stipulates that identification
measures “should not only take into account the physical appearance
of the individual, but also his or her psychological maturity”.
24. General Comment No. 6 addresses benefit of the doubt and presumption
of minority. If there is a chance that the individual is a child,
he or she should be treated as such. A decision to deny international
protection should not be based solely on a child’s refusal to undergo
a medical examination.
25. The Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children
against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (CETS No. 201, “Lanzarote
Convention”) in its Article 11.2 states that “Each Party shall take
the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that when
the age of the victim is uncertain and there are reasons to believe
that the victim is a child, the protection and assistance measures
provided for children shall be accorded to him or her pending verification
of his or her age”.
Within the UNHCR, Guidelines on International Protection No.
8 Child Asylum Claims under Articles 1(A)2 and 1(F) of the 1951
Convention and/or 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees,Note
reflect the importance of a process of age
determination which must be safe, child- and gender-sensitive, and
respect the dignity of the child.
There are two sources of procedural
safeguards in European Union law: the Qualification Directive and the
European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights.Note
main objective of the Qualification Directive is “on the one hand,
to ensure that Member States apply common criteria for the identification
of persons genuinely in need of international protection, and, on
the other hand, to ensure that a minimum level of benefits is available
for these persons in all Member States”. The Asylum Procedures DirectiveNote
the only one dealing directly with the issue of age assessment for
unaccompanied children. Notwithstanding the regulative form it may
take, children are entitled to protection, which should not depend
on administrative status or procedures.
28. Article 25 of the Asylum Procedures Directive authorises the
use of medical examination in order to determine the age of an unaccompanied
minor in EU member States. However, it does not specifically deal with
the different existing methods, but lays down the rights and safeguards
of the child: a presumption of minority, to have a representative
appointed, personal interview(s) conducted by a qualified professional,
to be provided legal and procedural information free of charge,
the use of the least invasive method, informed consent, the fact
that no decision of non-minority can be based solely on a refusal
to undergo medical examination, and finally the protection of the
best interests of the child.
In 2013 the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) published
a report “EASO Age assessment practice in Europe”Note
aimed at providing practical
support to EU member States in the field of age assessment. One
key issue EASO highlighted is that the best interests of the child
should be a primary consideration in age-assessment procedures.
Regarding exposure to ionisation, “The Euratom Directive”Note
is the EU regulation which deals
with exposure to ionisation for non-medical purposes, under the
title “practices involving the deliberate exposure of humans for
non-medical imaging purposes”. It states that “all individual non-medical
imaging exposure procedures using medical radiological equipment
shall be justified in advance, taking into account the specific objectives
of the procedure and the characteristics of the individual involved”.
of Europe current activities on age assessment and related subjects
31. In September 2016, the Ad hoc
Committee on the Rights of the Child (CAHENF) convened the Drafting Group
of Experts on Children’s Rights and Safeguards in the context of
migration (CAHENF-Safeguards) to assist in its mandate related to
the development of standards on legal guardianship and age assessment
to provide appropriate safeguards to children in the context of
32. The CAHENF-Safeguards group is mandated to review and develop
guidelines on legal guardianship and age assessment. In terms of
age assessment prior to and as part of the first meeting, current
age-assessment guidance and practice within the Council of Europe
were reviewed, which provided a comprehensive overview of current
arrangements and options as they relate to age assessment and the
rights of an unaccompanied child.
The office of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human
Rights is an institution which is very active on the question of
age assessment. In 2011, the former Commissioner, Mr Thomas Hammarberg,
identified the need for a multidisciplinary approach when assessing
age and to trust and respect children. He emphasised that “X-rays
can never determine exact age”Note
because of a margin of error
inherent in the technique. He defended the fact that children should
have the benefit of the doubt, and that no decision should be taken
merely on the basis of bone testing. He explained at great length
the reasons that make these methods unreliable.Note
2013, the current Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Nils Muižnieks,
reiterated in his report following his visit to Denmark,Note
age assessment “should not depend only on a medical examination”
and “multidisciplinary procedures should be established and minors
must be given the benefit of the doubt where there is uncertainty
as to their age” as reflected in the UN Committee on the Rights
of the Child, General Comment No. 6 (2005).Note
the latest thematic report “Realising the right to family reunification
of refugees in Europe”, the Commissioner makes three recommendations
on how to establish clear limits on age-assessment processes,Note
that age assessment should be carried out “only if there are reasonable doubts
about a person being minor”, suggesting that it “should rather involve
multidisciplinary evaluation by independent authority over a period
of time” and in cases where a medical evaluation is needed, it “should
only be carried out with the consent of the child or his or her
assessment of unaccompanied and separated children
34. Age assessment is a process
for determining the age of unaccompanied or separated children and young
people who are without documentation in the countries where they
are seeking protection.
35. In European countries, age assessment is conducted when young
people arriving from a third country have no identity documents
and the authorities have doubts as to their age. This procedure
is important as it can facilitate the recognition of an individual
as a child with all the deriving safeguards, such as protection
by a guardian, the right to child-friendly accommodation and care,
the right to seek appropriate international protection and assistance
and the right to education. These safeguards also contribute to
protecting children from violence and exploitation, forced labour
Across Europe, a large number of methods are employed which
include assessing physical appearances and a variety of medical
assessments which include dental examinations and x-rays of both
teeth and bones, sexual maturity tests and holistic assessments
that may include psychosocial elements, or any combination of these.
But none of these can produce exact results.Note
The EASO publication Age Assessment Practice in Europe 2013Note
a detailed description and analysis of all existing age-assessment procedures.
37. This task of assessing the age of an unaccompanied or separated
young migrant falls to State authorities in most European States.
Depending on each European State’s legislative arrangements, most
age determination interviews are carried out by immigration officials.
A range of medical assessments may then be utilised following the
dispute of age. In a handful of States, social workers are involved
in the determination of age.
38. This variation of practice could reflect a lack of guidance,
training and support for those tasked with undertaking an age assessment
leading to an over-reliance on physical appearance, as indicators
of age and the use of scientific tools (medical examinations and
the use of x-rays) as methods to quickly determine age. Apart from
the impacts these processes may have on a child’s mental state,
this may also leave States open to legal action as a consequence
of these practices.
should carry out the age-assessment procedure?
39. There is a robust debate around
the purpose of age assessments and who should be responsible for undertaking
them. The arguments put forward include the position that an age
assessment is a mechanism by which adults who claim to be children
can be identified in order to stop them from gaining access to a
system of support designed for children.
40. Those undertaking age assessments face a number of issues
which complicate the process when interviewing or assessing them.
Most children will have experienced hardship and often trauma in
their home countries and during the journey to the country where
they become known to authorities. One of the main issues is the
risk that age assessors may traumatise or re-traumatise a child
as a consequence of conducting an age assessment without knowledge
of psychosocial factors.
41. A number of questions arise regarding who is best placed to
carry out these functions. Which professionals could undertake child
assessments in a way appropriate to the age of a child and skilled
in identifying risk in a child-sensitive way? What is the role of
the police, border officials and the medical professionals in determining
42. These questions also highlight a conflict between child-focused
age assessments designed to provide age appropriate support, and
a process designed to determine age for other purposes, such as
the administrative process of an asylum claim or to ensure adults
are not claiming to be children. Both are important in terms of
outcome; however age determination for administrative purposes should
not be the main driver in initiating it. Within a holistic age-assessment
framework, social workers would be the lead professionals as they will
put the needs of the child first, and therefore they are best placed
to avoid or mitigate the risk of traumatising or re-traumatising
a child. The role of other professionals would be to contribute
to the holistic age assessment of an unaccompanied child and be
guided by the outcome.
43. The main outcome of a child-focused age assessment is to lead
to age appropriate support and begin a process whereby an unaccompanied
child is afforded the range of rights they are entitled to and to
the regularisation of their status as a child.
44. A holistic child-centred approach that captures the social
aspects of a child’s life (family circumstances, education history,
ethnic and cultural considerations and a child’s level of understanding
of their world and experiences) would provide a mechanism by which
any dispute of age can be resolved.
45. A holistic approach, if followed, can also be sensitive to
the needs and experience of the child, non- confrontational, supportive
and child friendly. Such an approach is also relevant in terms of
partnerships for all of those who work with vulnerable children.
It is important to engage with the network of professionals who
may be supporting them. The views of the professionals (border and
immigration officials, teachers, psychologists, guardians, legal
representatives, police officers, health professionals or other
relevant practitioners), if sought and relevant, can help synthesise
the views of the professional conducting the age assessment, while
fostering good and supportive inter-agency practice. Allowing agencies
to work together in a child-focused manner facilitates the development
of agency specific guidance and procedures.
46. In considering the question as to who is best placed to assess
a child in a way that is sensitive, safe and supportive and is trained
to assess need and identify risk, the social worker would seem the
professional best placed to assess age holistically. Also the relationships
social workers have with other professionals could be built upon
to support the development of a multi-agency approach.
of age by medical means
47. There is much debate as to
the validity, accuracy and ethics of medical tests used to determine
age. Such procedures often require children to undergo physical
examinations, which can include, as in Germany and Sweden, an examination
of a child’s genitalia as part of a sexual maturity physical examination.
This practice has been described as an inhuman and degrading treatment
in the January 2014 “UN Committee on the Rights of the Child – Concluding
observations on the combined third and fourth periodic reports of Germany”.
Unaccompanied children may also be exposed to ionised radiation
(x-rays) in the form of dental and wrist x-rays. There are inherent
inaccuracies in these techniques, as in the case of dental x-rays
where the margin of error is estimated to be between two and three
years while for wrist x-rays, the margin is between three and four
years. This margin of error becomes particularly problematic for
unaccompanied children claiming to be 15 or 16 years of age.Note
In addition, a wealth of evidence now exists indicating that
a holistic approach to age assessment precludes the use of medical
examinations which include the use of ionised radiation. The Royal
College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) is recommending
the holistic evaluation of age as the “most appropriate approach”.Note
The RCPCH also states
that “[t]he use of radiological assessment is extremely imprecise
and can only give an estimate of within two years in either direction
and the use of ionising radiation for this purpose is inappropriate”.Note
The British Society for Paediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes
takes a similar view and makes clear that “it is not possible to
accurately assess a child’s age based on physical examination or
bone age assessment”.Note
The current position of the RCPCH
and advice for paediatricians,Note
is that “when contacted, explain
that dental x-rays, bone age and genital examination will currently
not add any further information to the assessment process, however
this may change in future with new evidence”.
This being the case, these methods not only raise ethical
questions regarding the potential impact on a child’s physical health
with the use of x-rays, but also on their mental health such as
when subjecting a child to a sexual maturity physical examination
which could be viewed, as referenced above, as an abusive and degrading
treatment and at variance with UNCRC Article 37(a).Note
According to an EASO publication,Note
Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Norway,
Poland, Portugal, Sweden and Romania use dental observation in combination
with various types of x-ray proceduresNote
determine age. While Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Germany,
Greece, Hungary and Romania indicate that they also use sexual maturity
in combination with dental observation
and various types of x-ray procedures.
assessment and age disputes
53. For unaccompanied or separated
children the consequences of being wrongly evaluated as an adult
and being treated thus are potentially devastating. An age-disputed
child does not benefit from any of the procedures put in place to
ensure that children’s experiences and vulnerability are taken into
account during the asylum determination process. Their application
for asylum may be refused and the child put in immigration detention
and removed without ever having their age formally assessed.
54. A system which requires that any child whose age is disputed
by authorities be immediately referred for age assessment and which
excludes a requirement for all unaccompanied and separated children
to undergo an age assessment, would be a useful safeguard against
Many children and young people are not able to provide evidence
as to their age, and some may not even know their chronological
age. An unaccompanied or separated child may have experienced physical, mental,
sexual or emotional abuse on their journey to Europe and have undiagnosed
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.Note
These experiences may affect a child’s
ability to participate fully and openly in an age-assessment process
and appear to an untrained professional as being unco-operative
or deceitful. This may simply be an expression of a lack of trust
in adults in positions of authority or the child may be traumatised
56. For some organisations, this raises the question of a child’s
credibility when it could simply relate to his/her previous experiences
and not necessarily be an indication that he/she is trying to deceive.
Therefore, disputing the age of children as opposed to applying
the benefit of the doubt can affect the way they engage, as the
questioning of their credibility and identity may be perceived as
another form of mental and or emotional abuse.
57. A holistic approach to age assessment with trained and skilled
practitioners can anticipate these risks. It can provide a framework
by which the circumstances surrounding each child or young person
can be considered sensitively and in a child-friendly way, mitigating
any risk of harm.
In terms of when an age assessment should be carried out,
the phrases “disputed age” and “age in doubt” have led to considerable
discussion amongst professionals involved in age assessments, especially when
using visual indicators of age. What one professional deems a valid
reason to dispute age may substantially differ from another and
can be subjective. The United Kingdom has now stipulated, within
the statutory guidance “Care of Unaccompanied and Trafficked Children”,Note
that age assessments should not be carried
out on every child or young person approaching a Children’s Services
Department for support. It should only be used to ensure that appropriate
services (including education) are offered. The guidance also states that
a child should not be subjected to multiple assessments for administrative
purposes only and that there must be a “significant reason” to doubt
the age of a child.Note
This statutory guidance has
been transposed into practice guidance for social workers through
Assessment Guidance 2015
of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.
As with the issue pertaining
to UNCRC Article 37(a)Note
in regard to “inhuman or degrading
treatment”, the Article 37(b)Note
in regard to “arbitrary detention”
is also relevant where lawful detention is used: the latter “shall be
used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate
period of time”. This is due to the fact that children may be detained
as a consequence of an incorrect determination of age or held in
detention or detention-like facilities while an age assessment is
carried out. Both could be interpreted as at variance with UNCRC
Findings show that there are far more risks attached to the
placement of a child in a reception or detention centre for adults
in case of doubt about his or her age than to the placement of an
adult in an accommodation facility for children.Note
is therefore very important to provide alternative accommodation options
for children awaiting or undergoing age assessment, with a view
to ending the detention of children during disputes about age, including
temporary placement in centres for children where appropriate safeguards should
be in place to protect them and the other children accommodated
of age-assessment practices in different European countries
61. Malta, in line with Article
1 of the UNCRC, recognises a child to be anyone under the age of
18 years of age.
62. In Malta, age assessments are carried out by the Agency for
the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS). This approach enables the
AWAS to develop all the skills needed to implement a holistic approach
to age assessment. Malta’s age-assessment framework includes the
option to use medical assessment techniques, including the use of
ionising radiation (X-rays), and specifically bone density tests,
to determine age.
63. The existing age-assessment procedure developed and implemented
to assess age claims of migrant children was reviewed in late 2014,
making positive improvements to the procedure which recognised the
need for a holistic approach, including greater integration of the
benefit of the doubt in decision-making. Indications show, however,
that the incorporation of these improvements between the 2014 review
and March 2017 has been slow. According to the new policy, irregular
migrants who are undoubtedly children shall immediately be treated
as such without recourse to any age-assessment procedures. Age assessment
shall be undertaken in all other cases. This process affords the
option to apply the benefit of the doubt criteria.
64. Although there are some references to this procedure in legal
and policy documents, the procedure itself is not regulated by law.
The only reference to age-assessment procedures found in law are
set out in Regulation 17 of the Procedural Regulations, dealing
with the use of medical procedures to determine age in the context
of a claim for asylum.
Serbia considers an unaccompanied
migrant minor to be “a foreigner yet to reach 18 years of age and who,
at the time of entry into the Republic of Serbia or upon having
entered it, is not accompanied by their parents or guardians”Note
66. The identification of unaccompanied minors and determination
of age are carried out by officials (usually police officers) during
first contact with a child who may be unaccompanied or separated
from their parents or guardian. There are no official methods or
procedures for ascertaining the asylum seeker’s age, meaning that the
asylum seeker’s word, or any documentation they may possess, as
well as an official’s personal observations, are the only criteria
by which age is determined.
67. In line with Article 1 of the
UNCRC, Spain recognises a child to be anyone under the age of 18
years of age.
In 2014, a ProtocolNote
was adopted in co-operation between
the Ministries of Health and Social Services, Interior, Justice,
Employment and Foreign Affairs along with the Fiscalia
(Prosecutor General’s Office) which aimed to
co-ordinate the action of all those concerned in the Spanish governmental
framework in relation to unaccompanied children. The Protocol sets
out a framework for the identification of unaccompanied minors who
arrive via sea and defines the procedure that should be followed
for the conduct of age-assessment procedures in case of doubts about
the age of the minor. It should be noted that child-related issues
fall within the competence of the autonomous regions between which
governance is divided in Spain.
69. The Protocol establishes that migrant minors’ passports and
travel documents issued by official authorities must be considered
as sufficient evidence of their age. The Protocol also sets out
a number of exceptions in which a minor can be considered undocumented,
and accordingly be subjected to medical age assessment.
70. However, in practice, medical age-assessment procedures are
used as a rule rather than the exception, and are applied to both
documented and undocumented children, regardless of whether they
present official identity documentation or manifestly appear to
be minors. The benefit of the doubt is also not accorded in practice.
71. There are no ad hoc organisations or specialised bodies within
the Spanish framework for age assessment which carry out medical
assessments of the age of unaccompanied or accompanied minors.
Since 1 May 2017, the Swedish
Migration Agency undertakes age assessments of all unaccompanied and
separated migrant children at an early stage of the asylum process.Note
Aliens Act was modified in order to prevent adult asylum seekers
from being identified as children and benefiting from the resources
intended for children.
The staff of the Swedish Migration Board involved in age assessments
are regularly trained in all the different aspects of the age-assessment
procedures, including interviewing techniques and evidentiary assessment.
The Swedish Migration Agency provides training on interviewing children
and on child development, paying special attention to cultural and
In Ukraine, the age-assessment
procedure is multi-sectorial and consists of three phases. The local commission
consists of officials from local authority units on health care,
education, social welfare, services for children, as well as social
pedagogues and psychologists. The decisions are taken by the majority
holistic approach to age assessment
In 2015, the United Kingdom
produced guidance on how to undertake age assessment following a holistic
methodology that forbids the use of invasive medical techniques,
including the use of ionised radiation and all other medical processes
used to determine age where there is no medical need. The statutory guidance,
“Care of Unaccompanied and Trafficked Children” also provide helpful
guidance to practitioners by recognising the importance of affording
children the benefit of the doubt: “Where the person’s age is in
doubt, they must be treated as a child unless, and until, a full
age assessment shows the person to be an adult.”Note
This approach enables the needs and rights of other children
in care to be met while ensuring that the rights of a child whose
age is disputed and in the process of being assessed receives the
same support and services as any other child. If someone claims
to be an unaccompanied child while in custody or immigration detention,
this must be brought to the attention of the local Child Services
Department unless the person is clearly an adult. When an unaccompanied
child whose age is disputed is brought to the attention of child services,
he or she must be released into the care of child services, thus
becoming a “looked-after child”,Note
pending the outcome of the age assessment.
If determined to be an adult, the person is referred into the adult system
of asylum support. Conversely, if the person is deemed to be a child,
they would continue to benefit from child-appropriate care.
77. As holistic age assessments are the responsibility of a Child
Services Department, they fall within the child welfare and protection
framework of assessment and care. This arrangement affords the unaccompanied child
swift access to the range of services available to any child in
need within the United Kingdom. These services include accommodation,
access to education, and physical and mental health services. The
age-assessment task itself is carried out by qualified social workers
who explore a child’s background, family history, education, cultural
factors and the child’s emotional situation capturing his/her own
view and understanding of their situation and experience (emotional
Age assessments are only carried out when the age of a child
is disputed by the Home Office UK Home Department or by a Local
Authority Child Welfare Department (Children’s Services). Other
services, such as health institutions or schools may also raise
a question regarding the age of a child and scope to review and include
their views. However, as reflected in statutory guidance “Care of
Unaccompanied and Trafficked Children”,Note
the outcome of the age assessment
is binding on all statutory bodies, which, like the child, have redress
through the courts.
79. As part of a holistic assessment, the venue for the age-assessment
interview is recognised as important and needs to be conducive to
helping the child or young person feel safe, comfortable and able
to participate to the best of their ability in their interview(s).
This is reflected in the ADCS Age Assessment Guidance 2015, which
also encourages an unaccompanied child to say where they would prefer
the assessment to be held. Facilities such as police stations are
considered inappropriate for conducting age assessments.
80. Over a number of years, the age-assessment process has evolved
to include information on the country of origin and, where relevant,
information from professionals. Social workers take into account
the views of these professionals and support workers such as foster
carers, teachers and advocates.
To sum up, the main focus areas regarding risks and health-related
issues, as reflected in the holistic age-assessment guidance ADCS
Age Assessment Guidance 2015 are:
- Might the unaccompanied child have been trafficked or
- Does the unaccompanied child have any other additional
needs, aside from being alone?
- Might they have physical, mental or emotional health difficulties?
- Might they have learning difficulties?
- Might their experiences in their country of origin or
during their journey to the country have an impact on their ability
to respond fully to questions?
- What is the current immigration status of the child or
young person and do they need assistance with that before and/or
after the assessment?
- Is the child or young person in suitable accommodation
before and after the assessment?
Incorporating all of these factors into an assessment can
reduce risks associated with incorrectly determining age. It mitigates
the risk of an adult being determined as a child and placed within
a system of child support such as schools, foster homes or child
reception and residential centres. On the other hand, it mitigates the
risks posed to an unaccompanied child who is incorrectly assessed
as an adult and placed in the adult asylum system or returned to
the country of origin or to a third country, under the Dublin lll
Both these risks are real and should
not be discounted. However, in terms of child protection and child
rights, these situations highlight some of the risks involved in
working with vulnerable children in general and the importance of
having skilled and trained child specialists engaging with a child.
According to a recent Council of Europe study,Note
European countries apply a holistic approach in age assessment.
In six of these countries, a multidisciplinary approach is limited
to the mixture of different medical tests. In Ukraine, for example,
the age assessment is conducted by a local commission composed of
officials from local authority units on health care, education,
social welfare services for children, social pedagogues and psychologists.
The procedure consists in three phases and the decision is taken
by the majority of votes. In Italy, national legislation provides
that age assessment is conducted by the public security authorities
with the participation of cultural mediators and in the presence
of the child’s guardian or temporary guardian. The age-assessment
procedure is initiated only after it has been ensured that the child
has received immediate humanitarian assistance.
84. The development of a single European model of age assessment,
centred and focused on the child would also support the needs of
all agencies involved with unaccompanied and separated children
and act as the basis for addressing inter-agency conflicts in terms
of when, why and how a child’s age is disputed.
85. In accordance with the UNCRC and existing Council of Europe
human rights standards, a holistic process of age assessment should
be designed with enough flexibility to be applied in different situations
on the ground, ranging from stable country environments to high
migration hotspots and including border crossing points, detention
facilities and migration routes.
86. The findings of this report
identify the risks posed to children whose age is incorrectly determined
and the negative effects associated with certain age-assessment
methods. The report also describes a model of age assessment to
address and minimise these effects.
87. The main conclusion of this report is that age assessment
should only be conducted in cases of serious doubt about a child’s
age and as a last resort. It should be carried out only in the best
interests of a child and on a case-by-case basis.
88. A primary consideration of any age assessment should be the
repercussions that may ensue if the assessment is not accurate.
If a child’s age is disputed or he/she is assessed as an adult,
immigration detention and removal are very real potential outcomes.
The psychological effects of detention cannot be overemphasised,
especially the negative effects on children’s health and development.
89. It is also important to provide unaccompanied migrant children
with reliable information about age-assessment procedures in their
own language, so that they can fully understand the different stages
of the process and its consequences.
90. The multiple methods of age determination used in Europe reflect
the lack of a harmonised approach and method by which age is determined.
The development of a child-sensitive holistic model of age assessment
in conjunction with a training programme would enable European States
to meet the needs of unaccompanied and separated migrant children
and in so doing to meet their obligations as defined by the relevant
articles of the UNCRC. It is also important to reduce over-reliance
on judgment according to physical appearance and the negative impacts
associated with questioning a child’s credibility. A harmonised
model of age assessment would also put an end to inaccurate and
potentially traumatising sexual maturity tests and the exposure
of children to ionised radiation (X-rays) in the form of dental
and wrist x-rays, which are inaccurate and ethically questionable
as part of medical age determination.
91. An unaccompanied migrant child or his or her representative
should have the right to challenge the age-assessment decision through
administrative or judicial appeal channels.
On the basis of the above conclusions, the Assembly should
reiterate its appeal to member States of the Council of Europe made
in Resolution 2020 (2014)
on alternatives to the immigration detention of children,
to end the practice of detaining unaccompanied and separated children,
and call on them to:
the use of x-ray examinations in the form of dental or wrist x-rays
and all other invasive medical procedures for the purpose of determining
the age of unaccompanied or separated migrant children, except where
an existing health need is demonstrated or diagnosed;
- prohibit, in all situations, the use of sexual maturity
physical examinations for the purpose of determining the age of
unaccompanied or separated migrant children in the best interest
of the child;
- prohibit the detention of unaccompanied and separated
migrant children who are awaiting or undergoing age determination
and prohibit the detention of young people whose age has been determined
as 18 years but is within a two to three-year margin of error;
- identify and provide alternative accommodation options
for children who are detained pending or during the assessment of
their age, with a view to avoiding the detention of a child whose
age is or may be disputed. These alternatives may include temporary
placement in a children’s facility with appropriate safeguards for
their protection and the protection of other children;
- end the detention of children whose age was disputed where
their age has been determined to be above 18 but within a two to
three-year margin of error.
93. At the same time, the Assembly should urge the Committee of
Ministers of the Council of Europe to support the development of
a single holistic model of age assessment for Europe, firstly by
adopting the guidelines for child-friendly age assessment elaborated
by the CAHENF-Safeguards group, then by ensuring the follow-up to
the implementation of these standards in the member States through
the relevant intergovernmental body.