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The importance of identifying unaccompanied and separated children

The importance of identification
Two teenage boys, both unaccompanied. The boy in front is staring off to the right and the boy sitting behind him is staring off to the left. The photo is of their faces and part of their arms only.
© UNICEF (UN020017) / Gilbertson

Over the next two course steps we are going to discuss the importance of identifying unaccompanied and separated children. So that they receive the most appropriate care, protection and assistance as soon as possible, we should carefully and quickly:

  1. Identify those among other migrants and refugees who are under the age of 18 years and therefore children

  2. Identify all children who are specifically unaccompanied or separated

Please note, we should also remember that even if a child is travelling with a parent or legal/customary caregiver, we must look for any signs they might be at risk of harm.

Who is responsible for preliminary identification of unaccompanied and separated children?

It should be people with specific training, experience and skills that are given the responsibility for identifying unaccompanied and separated children.

Identifying children

One of the ways in which children are identified is through an age assessment. We are not going to provide details on how to conduct an age assessment in this course. This is because those making such an important determination should have more in-depth training than we can offer on this particular course. You can, however, read more about age assessment in documents you will find in the ‘See Also’ section at the bottom of the page.

We will now briefly discuss the importance of making sure a child is identified as a child and some of the challenges this might bring. When an unaccompanied and separated child who is in possession of legal identity documents, such as a passport, crosses an international border, it is easier – whether you are a border official or other professional – to clarify whether they are under 18 years of age. However, for those travelling with no identity documents, it can be much more difficult. Children may also provide false information. For example, they may deliberately say they are adults if they think this will allow them to continue to travel towards a preferred country of final destination. They might also be under pressure or advice from criminals such as traffickers to provide false information.

Please remember that international standards state that young people should be given the benefit of the doubt if their exact age is uncertain. This means that unless there is evidence they are not a child, you should assume a young person who say they are a child is in fact under 18, even if they look older.

Why it is important to identify a child as a child

Not correctly identifying a child, and inaccurately declaring them to be an adult, can have consequences that impact the rest of their lives. What are some of these possible consequences?

  • Age matters because if a child is incorrectly assessed as being an adult, they will not be entitled to the full care and protection they have a right to under the UN CRC and other international and national laws
  • Age makes a difference to the care placement in which they are accommodated, both immediately and in the long term, as well as their protection and access to other services while in alternative care. For example, for protection reasons it is important that unaccompanied children should have accommodation that is separated from adults
  • Age matters in places where children may be granted a temporary protection status until they reach 18 years of age and allowed to remain in the country until their 18th birthday
  • Age is relevant to a decision about the appointment of a guardian and to a young person’s right to seek, for example, education and health services
  • Age is relevant when different decisions are being made about a child’s future status
  • Age can be important for the child’s ability to exercise their right under national laws to be heard, and to have their views taken into account. This includes participation in legal and administrative proceedings and to special access to legal assistance and representation

The ‘See Also’ section below has links to other reading material that may be of interest to you.

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Caring for Children Moving Alone: Protecting Unaccompanied and Separated Children

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