Age verificationGermany to use ultrasound age tests for unaccompanied minor refugees

Published 24 January 2019

Age considerations play an important role in considering an asylum-seeker’s application in Germany. German law, with few exeptions, prohibits the deportation of unaccompanied minors — under the age of 18 and without family. Calls for mandatory X-ray age tests on unaccompanied minor refugees were rejected last year by German doctors. As an alternative, the Health Ministry is now launching a €1-million study into using ultrasound age testing.

Age considerations play an important role in considering an asylum-seeker’s application in Germany. German law, with few exeptions, prohibits the deportation of unaccompanied minors — under the age of 18 and without family. These unaccompanied minors, upon entering Germany, also have the right to attend school or start a professional training course immediately.

The debate in Germany over requiring age checks for unaccompanied minor refugees has been going on for a while now. Some German states do subject unaccompanied minors to such tests, but there is no agreed upon method to ascertain one’s age, and different states use different approaches.

DW reports that the debate gained even more attention last year when the German Medical Association (BÄK) rejected a proposal by the federal Health Ministry to introduce mandatory age checks using X-ray on ethical and medical grounds, calling it “an interference in their human welfare.”

The Healthy Ministry has not given up on the idea, however, and Health Minister Jens Spahn, searching for an alternative to X-rays, is has allocated $1.1 million for a study to find out whether ultrasound tests can be used to determine people’s age. A small, portable device, gthe size of a shoebox, has been developed by the Fraunhofer Institute.

Fraunhoffer developed the scanner to identify under-age victims of human trafficking.

I can understand why doctors are reluctant to use X-rays when determining the age of young migrants,” said Spahn. “But we need to determine age. Because this has a bearing on the asylum process and — when there is doubt — on legal proceedings. That’s why we have to find a way to make this as minimally invasive as possible.”

The results of the €1-million study into the use of ultrasound are due by the end of 2020.

During the past few months, critics of the use of X-ray to determine the age of asylum seekers warned that radiation technology could harm the body, and that, in any event, the precision of test results was open to querstion.

Supporters of using X-ray to determine afe note that certain carpal bones in the wrist are initially composed of cartilage at young age, and ossify only gradually, as the body matures. The degree of maturation, which is correlated with age, can be determined using X-rays.

The problem is that the cartilage maturation process varies from individual to individual, and even supporters of X-rays for age verification agree that an X-ray test of a hand bone can have a margin of error of up to three years: an individual who claims to be 18 years old could be 15 years old, 21 years old, ro any age in between.

BÄK president Frank Ulrich Montgomery has welcomed the news that the Health Ministry was exploring the use of ultrasound instead of X-rays, but told DW the reliability of the results has yet to be determined.

Even if ultrasound technology is proven to be more accurate than X-ray tests, Bernd Mesovic, head of legal policy at the refugee association Pro Asyl, still disagrees with the political debate in Berlin.

The health minister is putting unaccompanied minors in the same category as criminals,” Mesovic told DW, adding that mandatory age determination using X-rays is only allowed in the context of criminal proceedings or on medical grounds.

If a few 19 or 20-year-olds who fled their homes are given the chance to be educated and integrate into Germany because they said they were a couple of years younger, this is better than the alternative which could result in their prospects being diminished,” he said.

The debate over mandatory age checks on unaccompanied minor refugees was triggered by the murder of a 15-year-old girl in Kandel in December 2017. The suspect, Abdul D., a young man from Afghanistan, was sentenced to eight years and six months for the murder of his ex-girlfriend.

On arriving unaccompanied in Germany in April 2016, Abdul D. told authorities that he was 15. After the murder, however, doubts were cast and a report concluded that at the time of the crime he was at least 17 years and 6 months old, but probably already 20 years old. The district court ultimately decided to try him as a minor.

In other EU countries, mandatory checks already exist. In Belgium, for example, every asylum-seeker is checked if their age cannot be proven by documents. X-rays are taken of the teeth, the hands and the collarbone. In Italy, wrists are X-rayed, and in Sweden, knees and teeth are scanned using magnetic resonance imaging, though these tests are voluntary and are considered legal proof.