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Measuring Age: In Violation of Children’s Rights

In 2009, 605 unaccompanied asylum- seeking children under the age of 18 came to Denmark. According to the Red Cross, these children come for a myriad of different reasons: some have lost their parents in war or while fleeing their home country; some had traumatic experiences in their country of origin; and some are victims of organized trafficking. Most minors who seek asylum are boys between the ages of 15 and 17. However, many of these older children face yet another obstacle when they arrive in Europe. Governments doubt their age, thus questioning the validity of their case and denying them access to the rights they have as children.

Age is a crucial factor for asylum seekers because children have stronger cases for obtaining legal status. We met with a young person, Hassan,* at the Avnstrup asylum center in Denmark, who had experienced this problem firsthand. In December 2009, 17 year old Hassan came to Denmark as a refugee from Kabul, Afghanistan because his situation had become life-threatening. He was working for German doctors, which led the Taliban to accuse him of converting to Christianity—a punishable offense under their regime. To ensure his security, his mother sold all of her property to pay for a guide to bring him to Denmark. He traveled clandestinely at night for a month, by car, train, boat, and foot. Austria was the first European country to register Hassan’s fingerprints and identify him as a refugee. He continued on to Denmark to seek asylum, because his uncle lives in Jutland. Initially, the Danish authorities complied with his rights as a child by transferring him to a center for minor asylum seekers, Gribskov, and providing him with a guardian. At Gribskov, they tested his age and determined he was between 19 and 23. When he rejected this assessment, they gave him a month to obtain an official document from Afghanistan stating his age. His aunt was able to send a document; however, after three months the government responded that they would not accept his ID card, damaging his chances for asylum.

Save the Children and several other human rights organizations have made strong critiques of the methods used to determine age of asylum seekers in Europe. Currently, the government of Denmark measures age based on three tests which estimate the maturity of the wrist bone and teeth, as well as overall body development. It is important to note that these are all physical examinations, that do not include a general overview of the person’s psychological state. Denmark, along with many other European countries, compares the x-rays of the wrist to a reference atlas created in the United States in 1935. The reference itself has come under scrutiny because it has not been expanded or developed from the original data that used white Americans of European origin as the source for comparison. From this standpoint, the test is problematic due to its lack of sensitivity towards physical differences between populations.

Body structure depends significantly on the type of experiences you have had, what kind of physical activity you engage in, the nutritional value of your diet, and how quickly you develop in adolescence. These are not factors that are easy to measure or categorize, but they affect the maturity of the body, wrist bone and teeth. According to an article by Birgit Einzenberger from The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), youth today on are on average much larger than their elders, and they reach bone maturity earlier than in the 1930s when these tests were formulated. Youth develop at such disparate rates – especially young boys between the ages of 15 and 18 – that physical tests cannot stand alone as the sole determination of age.

Einzenberger’s article also criticizes the second test – that of dental age. She argues that this is also difficult to apply universally because each person’s teeth grow differently, depending on when one loses his/her baby teeth, the diet he/she has growing up, and any infections in his/her mouth. The age obtained by observing dental development is only accurate to plus or minus two years from the person’s actual age. Although the Danish government employs a wide margin of error with these methods, even this wide confidence interval failed Hassan.

Hassan’s case offers a classic example of the futility of such a measurement-based system. In Afghanistan, Hassan earned money by cutting down trees and laying bricks to help support his family. Engaging in physical labor of this intensity may have affected the results in the tests that estimated his age. They revealed a mature level of general body structure and bone development in his hands that may not be typical of a teenager in the United States, but correspond with his experiences in Afghanistan.

There are severe legal ramifications for refugee children who are labeled as adults. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) guarantees minors under the age of 18 special rights. Based on the CRC, children are not subject to the Dublin Convention, which sends asylum seekers back to the first country in which they were recorded as seeking refuge. In contrast, separated minors cannot be returned to their home country if this would subject them to a dangerous situation. According to an article in Politiken on September 1, 2009, Denmark denies half of all asylum-seeking adults. The number of children estimated as adults cannot be recorded, but in Hassan’s room at the Avnstrup asylum center, two of the three other people living in his room claimed that they too were under 18 when they came to Denmark, but were estimated to be between 19 and 23 years of age.

When the Danish government regards these individuals as adults based on such a cursory evaluation of their physical status, it systematically violates the rights of many separated minors who seek asylum. Minors need to be given greater benefit of the doubt when sitting on the cusp of adulthood. Categorizing adults based on a specific age ignores a large and vulnerable population of asylum seekers. In addition to the likelihood that many people are unfairly denied asylum based on this test, there is an issue of health and physical safety. Even at 18, young people are still developing, and it can severely impact their well-being if they are exposed to risks or physical and mental abuse. The UNHCR Guidelines on Policies and Procedures on Dealing with Unaccompanied Children Seeking Asylum recommends that children “should always be given the benefit of the doubt if the exact age is uncertain,” and should take the psychological maturity of the child into consideration when estimating age.

This topic has been greatly overlooked in Denmark; even the Danish Institute for Human Rights and Amnesty International Denmark had not addressed the issue when we contacted them. Hassan’s case puts a real face on an institutional problem. Although the age measurement test only took Hassan three hours, he has been waiting in instability and uncertainty for six months. Now, he is anxious to find out if he will be returned to Austria, or whether Denmark will process his case as an adult. All he desires is his “right to life,” which he fears will be denied him if he returns to Afghanistan.


*Hassan's name has been changed to preserve his anonymity.

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HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2010


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