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How European countries wrongfully classify children seeking asylum as adults

‘These decisions have absolutely life-changing implications for some of the most vulnerable young people in our society.’

An abstract graphic showing photocopied face and hands Galateia Iatraki/Solomon
Asylum-seeking minors who are wrongfully classified as adults can be denied basic rights, such as access to education, and be exposed to violence and abuse.

In July 2015, a Gambian teenager named Omar boarded a dinghy in Libya and crossed the Mediterranean Sea. Hours after landing in Italy, he was accused of steering the boat and arrested for people smuggling – a charge levelled against many asylum seekers and migrants attempting to reach Europe. 


Omar, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, told the Italian authorities he was 16 – a minor. But they didn’t believe him and X-rayed his hand and wrist to determine his age. Based on the results of the medical exam, authorities determined Omar was over 18. 


The exam used can have a margin of error of over two years, and many medical organisations believe it to be inaccurate. But it is still administered in numerous European countries. 


Omar was sent to Pagliarelli prison – the largest adult carceral facility in Sicily – to await trial. After months being there, he was able to connect with a lawyer, Cinzia Pecoraro, who had successfully defended other detainees facing smuggling charges. 


“You could see from his face he was a child,” Pecoraro told The New Humanitarian, reflecting on her first visit to see Omar. “You can’t stay here,” she remembers telling him. 


But by the time Pecοraro was able to prove Omar was a minor, he had already spent a year in adult prison. Nearly a decade later, “he remains traumatised,” Pecoraro said. “He stutters, and he’s afraid of everything.” 


Omar’s case isn't an isolated one. The New Humanitarian and the Greece-based investigative newsroom Solomon spent more than six months investigating the wrongful classification of asylum-seeking minors as adults in Greece, Italy, and Britain, speaking to over 30 lawyers, doctors, and human rights advocates, and analysing court documents and reports. The reporting showed that: 

  • Unaccompanied children seeking asylum in all three countries have been repeatedly classified as adults, including by border security force officials who sometimes arbitrarily decided the age of asylum seekers; 
  • The assessment systems that are used to determine people’s ages are unreliable, poorly implemented, and often violate the legal rights of children;
  • Systemic issues – including a lack of qualified interpreters – make it difficult for children who are wrongfully qualified as adults to appeal their cases. 


‘Consequences can be disastrous’


Every year, tens of thousands of children undertake dangerous journeys to Europe on their own, often in search of safety or to reunite with relatives. In 2023, more than 41,500 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in EU countries. 


Over the past decade, that number has ebbed and flowed, along with the overall number of asylum seekers reaching Europe, from a low of around 13,500 in 2020 to a high of nearly 92,000 in 2015. In Britain, out of around 75,000 asylum applications submitted last fiscal year (ending in October), around 4,600 came from unaccompanied minors. 

It is difficult to know how many children have been wrongfully classified as adults because many cases are never documented. 


Italy does not collect data on the number of age classification cases that have been challenged and overturned. Numerous requests by The New Humanitarian and Solomon to the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum for data have gone unanswered. A document provided by the ministry to the Greek parliament, however, said that, between the end of April 2021 and the end of March 2023, there were 1,024 age dispute cases. In 37% of these cases, the people involved were found to be children. 


Meanwhile, in the UK, between the start of 2020 and September 2023, there were 9,681 age dispute cases. In 55% of these, the people were found to be children. 


The stakes for children are high. Obtaining an accurate age assessment can make the difference between having access to shelter or being forced to live on the streets, and between gaining legal status or being deported. 


Like Omar, other children wrongfully classified as adults have been tried in the adult criminal justice system. 


In one high-profile case, six young Afghan asylum seekers were accused of starting the fire that burned down the notorious Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos in September 2020. Two were already registered as minors. Three of the other four said they were under 18, but they were tried as adults after being given an age assessment exam. They were convicted and sentenced to 10-year jail terms. 


Last month, a judge in an appeals case found that the three defendants who said they were minors were in fact under 18 at the time of the fire and that the age assessment exam they had been given had not followed procedures. The judge declared a mistrial, and the three defendants will now be tried again as minors. They have been released from prison – although they are barred from leaving Greece – as they await their new trial, but only after spending three and a half years in a prison for inmates between the ages of 18 and 25. 


In general, children being incorrectly classified as adults during trials leads to harsher sentences, and time spent in adult prisons increases the likelihood of them being exposed to violence and abuse. 


Outside the criminal justice system, children wrongfully classified as adults are also denied rights, such as access to education, and face bureaucratic barriers to reuniting with family members in other European countries.


“These consequences can be disastrous,” Monica Mazza, a psychologist based in Turin, Italy and a member of the Italian Society of Migration Medicine, told The New Humanitarian. “They can affect [minors] for long periods of their life.” 


‘There's bias built into the system’


The problem of minors being classified as adults is often a symptom of overburdened and under-resourced asylum systems in EU countries and Britain, according to some of the experts The New Humanitarian spoke to. 


Governments say they use age assessments to protect minors and to prevent adults from pretending to be children to try to gain easier access to legal status, protection from deportation, and better services. But some experts say the dysfunction of asylum systems – which in many places (including Britain, Italy, and Greece) are being made increasingly draconian as a strategy to try to deter migration – creates an incentive for some people to try to game the system.


“If you know that after turning 18 you’re screwed, then you do anything to remain 17 your whole life,” said Nikolaos Gkionakis, a psychologist and co-founder of Babel Day Center, which provides mental health services to asylum seekers and migrants in Athens, Greece. 


At the same time, minors also sometimes claim to be adults, according to lawyers The New Humanitarian spoke to, especially when they have relatives in other European countries and want to avoid getting stuck in formal family reunification processes that often move at a glacial pace. “They know they’d end up stuck in a childcare facility,” said Rosa Lo Faro, a lawyer who works with asylum seekers and migrants in Catania, Italy.  

“If you know that after turning 18 you’re screwed, then you do anything to remain 17 your whole life.”

Underaged girls who are victims of human trafficking are also often forced by traffickers to claim they are over 18 so they don’t end up in the more robust child protection system. “This is why an accurate age assessment process is important,” added Mazza, the Turin-based psychologist. 


At best, however, the evaluation methods EU countries and Britain rely on when doubts are raised to determine people’s age have their limitations. At worst, they are fundamentally flawed. 


With hundreds of thousands of people applying for asylum each year, accurately categorising applicants as adults or children, and channelling them into the corresponding system, presents a significant challenge. A few countries (including Britain, Serbia, and Ireland) have relied on visual and biographical age assessments to do this. But many European countries (including Italy and Greece) frequently use medical testing, despite numerous warnings from experts and medical associations that they are inaccurate and unethical


“There is no scientific test that can be used to tell you precisely how old a child is in terms of looking at their age for immigration and asylum purposes,” said professor Andew Roland, a consultant in paediatric emergency medicine and officer for child protection at Britain’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. “The methods that have been proposed to be used in this age assessment process, the answer that they give is often an age range.”


One of the most commonly used methods – which was used on Omar – is a bone age assessment done by X-raying the hand and wrist using the Greulich-Pyle atlas. Developed in the 1950s using data gathered from Caucasian children, the test doesn’t take ethnicity or other variables, such as socioeconomic background and nutritional status, into account. 


“It's important to know that there's bias built into the system,” Ranit Mishori, a senior medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights who has written about the inaccuracy of medical age assessments, told The New Humanitarian.  


In 2018, the European Society of Paediatric Radiology recommended against using the Greulich-Pyle atlas, as well as other bone measurement methods, as age assessment tests. Despite this, the Greulich-Pyle atlas continues to be widely used.


In 2019, the World Medical Association (WMA) released a statement recommending that “medical age assessments only be carried out in exceptional cases and only after all non-medical methods have been exhausted”.


“There is conflicting evidence about the accuracy and reliability of the available methods of age assessment, which may generate significant margins of error,” the statement said. 


Countries like Italy and Greece, however, continue to use medical age assessments as the primary method to determine the age of minors.


‘Without observing basic fairness’


In addition to concerns about the accuracy of tests, authorities often disregard laws on how age assessments are supposed to be conducted. 


In Greece and Italy, medical testing is only supposed to be conducted after a psychosocial assessment by social workers, child psychologists, and neuropsychiatrists. But lawyers and NGO workers said this step is often skipped in both countries. 


In Greece, this is often due to a shortage of qualified professionals. In 2021, for example, age assessments on the island of Lesvos were suspended for six months because of a lack of qualified personnel. During this time, people who said they were minors – but were not believed by authorities – were placed in tents with hundreds of adults at the reception centre on the island. 


One Afghan asylum seeker who claimed to be 16 was placed in a tent with 180 men where he was threatened with rape before eventually being attacked with a knife in the toilets.


In Italy, a recent report found that out of 102 local health authorities (the main institutions that conduct age assessments), only 29 implemented a 2017 law aimed at improving the asylum system for children, which included a more comprehensive age assessment procedure involving a social worker and a psychological or neuropsychiatric evaluation. Instead, most still use age assessments that heavily rely on medical exams. 


In addition to the Greulich-Pyle atlas, Italy is one of several countries – including Germany, Austria, and Croatia – that still uses highly intrusive sexual maturation genital exams to determine age. “A minor can decide not to do it, but he could be declared over 18,” said Alice Argento, an Italian immigration lawyer.


In Britain, where authorities have relied almost exclusively on visual and psychosocial age assessments in recent years, issues have still arisen. 


On 14 December 2020, an asylum seeker – who is referred to as MA in court documents – arrived in the UK in the back of a lorry after being separated from his mother. Police picked him up at a gas station in the middle of the night after he asked for help. His age assessment happened at noon the following day. Lasting just 42 minutes, the assessment concluded that he was 20 years old – despite his claims that he was 16. 


“I had only just arrived and I was very tired and so I was not certain of what happened or what was said,” MA said in a witness statement. “The interpreter was there, but they were only on the phone and there was no one there to look out for me, just the two people who were asking me many questions. It was a very difficult experience.”


MA ended up spending three days in an immigration removal centre before being sent to an accommodation for adult asylum seekers. According to his lawyers, he wasn’t given a copy of his age assessment or made aware that he could challenge the result. 


In June 2022, a High Court judge noted that MA had been given an age assessment that was unlawful. “Hundreds of children were subject to this guidance and age disputed under a truncated process that operated without observing basic fairness or providing young people with an appropriate adult,” MA’s lawyers said in a statement


‘Life changing implications’


Under a legal principle called favor minoris (favouring the minor) international law requires that asylum seekers who declare themselves to be under 18 should be treated as minors until their age can be confirmed. This principle is often disregarded.


In Greece, for example, children spent months stranded in camps for adults. “Through correspondence with the authorities, we found out that the presumption to minority was not applied in cases where minors who were wrongly registered as adults were waiting for the age assessment results,” said Dimitra Linardaki, who works with the NGO Fenix. 


In Italy, “there is no favor minoris”, immigration lawyer Nicola Datena said. Instead of being protected, children are often left at the mercy of a system that questions them, he added. 


Unaccompanied minors often don't know that they can challenge an age misclassification, and they struggle to access quality legal representation. The onus for overturning an incorrect age classification is almost entirely on the children, according to experts. And lawyers in Italy said that authorities sometimes intentionally register minors as adults to allow them to be deported. The Italian Ministry of Interior has not responded to The New Humanitarian’s request for comment on this allegation. 

“To base some of those decisions on unspecific scientific outcomes, to expose those young people to radiation – it really is not ethically acceptable; it's not scientifically robust.”

As political attitudes towards migration in Europe continue to shift rightward, there is little sign of governments being interested in improving or replacing current age assessment systems, despite the clearly documented problems. In fact, in Britain, as part of its efforts to crack down on migration, the government has announced that it intends to introduce medical age testing.


While the flaws in current approaches are apparent, the question remains: What would a better system look like? 


Some medical associations advocate for the use of multiple assessment tools, combining psychosocial and medical exams that involve X-rays and CT scans. But other medical experts worry about the risks associated with exposing children to radiation. “You have to balance the risks of these exams with the benefits. And all this radiation really kind of gives me a pause,” said Mishori from Physicians for Human Rights.  


"These decisions that have been taken have absolutely life-changing implications for some of the most vulnerable young people in our society,” said Roland, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. “To base some of those decisions on unspecific scientific outcomes, to expose those young people to radiation – it really is not ethically acceptable; it's not scientifically robust.”


Overall, the flaws in age assessment systems are reflective of the problems within European asylum systems as a whole, lawyers, researchers, and migration experts said. With the focus on reducing migration rather than providing people protection, “what’s missing is the willingness to do a good job,” Argento said.


Ottavia Spaggiari reported from Palermo, Catania, Milan, and Padua in Italy; Isobel Thompson reported from London, England; and Iliana Papangeli reported from Athens and Lesvos, Greece. Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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