The refugee dilemma: mature children or immature adults?  

As thousands of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children continue to enter Europe, Loughborough professor Noel Cameron, writing in the Annals of Human Biology, warns biological age-determining tests could contravene human rights.

In the 12 months prior to June 2015, UK officials reported 2168 applications from unaccompanied asylum seeking children. Of those, 488 were assessed for biological maturity to determine their status as ‘children’. Over half (58%) were categorised as adults based on test results alone.

The absence of certified age documentation carried by many refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe has led to countries using biological variables – usually skeletal maturity – to determine chronological age.

But it is widely recognised that maturational scales are imperfectly correlated with chronical age, meaning many children could be wrongly classified as adults.

20% of males still not skeletally mature at 18

Whilst 50% of boys are skeletally mature at 16.5 years of age, over 50% of boys are not skeletally mature on their 16th birthday, and 20% are still not mature on their 18th birthday.

This means a decision based on adulthood being defined as the attainment of full skeletal maturity condemns those skeletally advanced 16 and 17 year olds to laws governing adults, and those skeletally delayed 18 year olds to laws governing children.

Life-changing consequences

The use of a biological maturity indicator to signify a specific chronological age, and thus the fate of an asylum seeker, is inappropriate at best and simply wrong in over one third of assessments

Results have life changing consequences for young asylum seekers, because they result in the loss of any access to the rights and privileges afforded to children, including housing and foster care, and may lead to repatriation and continued persecution.

These figures are similar across most European Union countries targeted by asylum seeking refuges in the last few years. It is simply indefensible to ignore the known imperfect association between maturity and age in order to decide who will, or will not, be granted the opportunities afforded by asylum in Europe.

Read the original commentary article in the Annals of Human Biology.


Noël Cameron is a Professor of Human Biology in the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine at Loughborough University.



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