Proof of Age

Annie Hylton

Nigel Farage claimed recently that ‘65 per cent of assessed “child refugees” coming to UK were actually adults’. According to Home Office figures, there were 2206 asylum applications from unaccompanied children last year. Immigration officers disputed the age of 712 of them; 634 disputes were resolved; 440 applicants were judged to be 18 or older, though that decision doesn’t necessarily mean that they ‘were actually adults’.

In France last year, about 25,000 people applied for asylum as unaccompanied minors, up from around 4000 in 2010. I met Amadou – not his real name – at a Médecins Sans Frontières centre in Paris. He’d dreamed of making it to Paris to continue his education, learn French, become a bus driver. But the authorities didn’t believe he was 16 and wouldn’t offer him protection as a minor unless he could provide proof of his age.

He comes from a small village in Guinea, which doesn’t have phone coverage or internet access. At a young age, Amadou’s father sent him to Sierra Leone to work with a family friend, where he learned English. Once his father died, Amadou’s working conditions deteriorated, and he was made a ‘house boy’ for his father’s friend. He decided to leave with a friend to work in Algeria, but he was deported to the desert near the Niger border in 2016.

Amadou made his way to Sabha, in Libya, where he found a driver to transport him to Sabratah, from where he hoped to make the journey to Europe. The smuggler, however, sold him off to a local man for labour. ‘They treated us like slaves; we worked without payment,’ he told me. Each of the workers, around a dozen of them, ate one piece of bread and one slice of cheese per day, locked up in prison-like conditions. Amadou said he lived like this for five to six months.

He travelled to Italy with a group of 150 people on a rubber dinghy. Something punctured the boat in the middle of the Mediterranean and it began to sink; 64 people drowned. Amadou was rescued and arrived in Italy in January. He travelled with a friend to Ventimiglia, where they planned to cross the Franco-Italian border, but the authorities turned his friend away. Amadou made his way to Paris by foot and train. The first few nights in Paris, he slept in a metro station. Two months on, he’s shuffling between indoor basketball courts, where the Salvation Army houses homeless people. In a few days, he doesn’t know where he’ll sleep.

French NGOs estimate that age-assessment centres initially reject up to 80 per cent of applicants: they may be too tall, or too well dressed; they may not have the right documents, or any papers at all; some are turned away at the Italian border. There are also reports of the French police falsifying migrant children’s birth dates.

Amadou is appealing the decision. The appeal process in France can take up to 14 months, according to Caroline Douay, a field co-ordinator for MSF Paris, during which a person is given no means to survive. Those who are rejected, but insist they’re under 18, exist in a legal grey zone, considered neither an adult nor a minor by the French state. According to MSF, judges overturn at least 20 per cent of decisions on appeal (the number has gone down; it used to be that around half the cases were overturned).

The judge can order a bone assessment to determine an applicant’s age. Medical age assessment is common throughout Europe, despite being scientifically unsound and invasive. The procedure may involve dental observations, radiological tests and sexual maturity assessments (which can include examining a child’s genitals and pubic hair). According to Médecins du Monde, some of these measures have a margin of error of at least two years.

‘I can’t say I regret coming,’ Amadou told me, ‘but it’s now close to that.’