Asylum seekers who say they are under-age are being cross-examined by immigration authorities and given new dates of birth. By Max Opray.

How Immigration decides asylum seekers’ age

It is a remarkable thing: asylum seekers enter the room as children and emerge from it adults. Inside, a pair of immigration officials, the bouncers of Nightclub Australia, tasked with deciding if these youths are really the age they claim to be, study them carefully.

Known as age determination meetings, these encounters first and foremost are about physical observations. Is there acne on the subject’s skin? What is their bone structure like? Do the females have an ample bosom? Are the boys muscular and tall? Do they have facial hair? What about grey hairs? A hint of silver isn’t a guarantee of adulthood, given what the average asylum seeker has lived through, but it certainly is a strong indication.

There is also the matter of psychological maturity, and whether the interviewee’s story checks out. Cross-examinations cover plenty of ground: when the subject started school, if they’ve ever worked, how old their siblings are. At the end of the meeting comes the decision. If both officials are convinced the interviewee is likely an adult, their birthdate is henceforth shifted to December 31 of a year that will make them 18. If one of the two believes the asylum seeker is in fact telling the truth, then the interviewee is permitted to go on with their childhood.

Despite immigration department protocol stipulating that the benefit of doubt must be given to anyone claiming to be a minor, many sources involved with these meetings claim they rarely end in the asylum seeker’s favour. The concern is that teenage asylum seekers are effectively presumed adults unless they can prove otherwise, in keeping with the Coalition government’s fondness for reversing the onus of proof.

In Adelaide, a series of unfavourable age determination meetings fuelled expectations of deportation to such a degree that 15 Vietnamese asylum seekers in community detention went on the run in late June, and haven’t been seen since. The South Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (SASPA) has made a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) regarding such meetings, and is also assisting individual students lodge complaints. Association president Jan Paterson told The Saturday Paper they want more support for asylum seekers during interviews. Present protocol requires the presence of an independent observer, but Paterson said students typically did not realise anyone was looking out for them.

“We’ve called for carers with whom they’ve been staying or someone from school to go with them to be a supportive face,” she said.

Paterson cited an example of sisters who claimed to be unaccompanied minors aged 15 and 17 respectively, until two months ago when they were determined to be adults during separate meetings with immigration.

“These young Vietnamese girls, they were so frightened and compliant, because they were grateful to be here, and were likely to say yes to anything people asked,” she said.

The girls – whose names I cannot reveal – advised their school that only two other people were at each meeting, not three as would be expected if there was an independent observer, and that they were not allowed to bring anyone in with them. At the end of both interviews the students were told they were adults, and last week received a letter advising them of their new birthdates, which now fall on the same day of the same year. Although the girls physically appear to be of distinctly different ages, officially they are now twins.

1 . Amnesty report

At least they were lucky enough to be able to put their case forward in person. According to the This Is Breaking People report published at the end of 2013 by Amnesty International, age determination meetings at the Manus Island detention centre are conducted via teleconference with officers based in Australia. Other immigration staff are present in the room during these meetings, but they are not trained in age assessment procedures.

A spokesperson for Scott Morrison, minister for Immigration and Border Protection, said the Coalition government is using the same age determination process employed by their Labor predecessors.

“In 2012, the department developed and implemented the age determination process that combines a focused interview together with the assessment of any available information and documentation,” the spokesperson said.

“Where it is clear that a person is an adult, they are treated as such from that point. People continue to be encouraged, and assisted, to produce evidence that substantiates their age.

“Should new information or documentation become available that supports a different assessment outcome, an individual, or a person engaging with that individual, can seek to have the determination reviewed.”

2 . How age determines treatment

The reasons why age determination meetings are deemed necessary are varied. Sydney-based Refugee Advice & Casework Service (RACS) solicitor Sarah Dale, who attends such meetings in an observation role, said that while unaccompanied minors are eligible for a whole host of benefits that adults cannot access, in her experience they arrive in Australia unaware of them.

“At RACS we have seen initial discrepancies surrounding age being a result of cultural differences, a lack of documentation and in many cases the effect of trauma,” she said.

As for the difference between life as an asylum seeker adult and as a minor, she said those found to be over 18 are moved on from community detention to a bridging visa.

“If you’re on a bridging visa you’ve got to rent your own home, manage your own finances, pay your own electricity bill, while in community detention you have a case worker to help support you, get you to school, help you with your homework, things like that,” she said.

Other potential drawbacks include losing financial benefits, such as the meaningful engagement activity allowance (a fund that goes towards music and sport activities for unaccompanied minors), and the increased likelihood of facility detention or deportation. Dale advised me the consequences of a negative age determination meeting could endanger an asylum seeker’s application for protection.

“Given the [immigration] department has determined that you potentially haven’t been truthful, it weighs into your credibility,” she said.

In New South Wales, asylum seekers found to be 18 can at least finish their education, but in South Australia they aren’t so lucky. The two girls in Adelaide have been advised by the Department of Immigration they will have to leave school at the end of the term.

SASPA is working to remove at least this potential incentive to pretend to be a minor. The governing councils of several South Australian schools have passed resolutions allowing for asylum seekers to finish their education whether or not they are 18, with the costs to be borne by the schools themselves. They don’t know how Morrison will react to this.

3 . The PR element

Beyond the need to verify whether asylum seekers are getting the benefits they are entitled to, there is also a PR advantage to reclassifying children as adults. A tough approach to those who arrive by boat sits well with the majority of the Australian populace, but when the word “children” enters the equation, the immigration minister is noticeably more guarded in his language. While giving evidence at the AHRC inquiry into children in detention on August 22, Morrison deviated in dramatic fashion from his steely-eyed stop-the-boats mantra to claim that the impact on children of the policies he oversees had taken a personal toll.

“As a parent of two young children, the emotional challenges of working in this policy portfolio are just as real and just as great as they would be for any other parent in my position,” he said.

The at-times fiery inquisition of the minister by AHRC president Gillian Triggs was preceded days earlier by Morrison’s first significant gesture of compassion towards asylum seekers: the release of children aged under 10 from mainland detention centres into the community.

About 150 children and their families will be released, but about 700 more children remain in detention centres, including in offshore facilities on Nauru and Christmas Island.

As evidence of the psychological harm inflicted on children in detention continues to pile up at the AHRC inquiry, these nine-year-olds due for release had better hope they aren’t too traumatised by the experience. They wouldn’t want to sprout a grey hair.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "The years condemn".

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Max Opray is Schwartz Media’s morning editor and a freelance writer.