Child asylum procedures ‘far from adequate’

Procedures for child asylum-seekers detained with adults to challenge the results of the age verification process were “far from adequate”, according to the Jesuit Refugee Service.

At present, those who claim to be under 18 on arrival are detained with adults if the authorities doubt their age

Decisions are not always provided in writing and even when they are, they are usually written in English and no reasons are given, said Katrine Camilleri, assistant director of JRS Malta.

Dr Camilleri was responding to questions on the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s review of Malta, published last week.

Among other things, the committee had raised concerns about the housing of asylum-seeking children in adult detention centres.

At present, those who claim to be aged below 18 on arrival are detained with adults if the authorities doubt their age while a verification process is carried out by the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS).

Last July, the Home Affairs Ministry told The Times that it takes 18 days on average to determine each request and secure the child’s release.

Those confirmed to be under 18 are placed into children’s homes run by AWAS.

Dr Camilleri said if a person is verified as over 18, no information is provided about the possibility to appeal and the procedure to be followed.

The law does not explicitly provide for the possibility of an appeal, but JRS has been told it is possible to appeal a decision to the Immigration Appeals’ Board within three working days.

Even if this was the case, JRS believed this was ineffective due to the lack of information, the short time period and because the Immigration Appeals Board was set up for appeals on immigration decisions, which are different from age assessment.

JRS echoed the UN committee’s concerns about the age verification process itself, especially the use of wrist X-rays if doubts persist after a person has been interviewed by an Age Assessment Team.

Dr Camilleri said there was too much reliance on the result of the wrist X-ray, adding that paediatricians have claimed there is a margin of error of up to five years and the outcome could be influenced by ethnic and racial characteristics.

When contacted, the Office for the Commissioner for Children (CfC) Helen D’Amato advocated all asylum-seeking children should be housed in a child-friendly environment, separate from adults.

Aside from migrant issues, the UN report raised concerns about insufficient mechanisms for children to be heard in court cases concerning them, and the low minimum age of criminal responsibility (nine years).

The CfC said a legal mechanism should be introduced so children are automatically heard in divorce and separation cases.

It pointed out that the draft National Children’s Policy called for the child to be heard in all cases that concerned them.

This amendment would bring Maltese legislation more in line with Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the commissioner said.

At present, whether children under 14 are heard in legal custody cases is at the discretion of the presiding judge.

A Bill that raises the minimum criminal age of responsibility to 14, among other amendments, had been presented to Parliament in 2011 and the CfC hoped it would become law in the near future.

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