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Rethinking child refugee representation: Unpacking the construction of children’s identities in status determination


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Over the last decade, the number of unaccompanied children applying for international protection in Europe has increased substantially. As of June 2019, 168,320 applications by children were still pending [1]. Additionally, positive decisions on these applications have dropped in 2019, and inconsistencies in decision-making demonstrate that understanding how children are constructed in these procedures is particularly important, not only for whether children benefit or not from protection, but also on shaping how these children are represented in and outside of this process [2]. It is also relevant considering how dynamics might alter due to COVID-19, with online procedures (interviews) creating additional complexities in interactions between children and decision-makers.


This piece instigates discussion on how these children’s identities are formed within processes of status determination, interrogating the impact that this has on legitimising broader migration narratives regarding children. Through a case study, it brings attention to the context where decision-makers receive and construct knowledge when assessing children’s testimonies, namely, through bringing visibility to credibility assessment in determination procedures. 


Unaccompanied children and credibility assessment in status determination

To be granted asylum, unaccompanied children in host countries spontaneously seeking protection must go through refugee status determination (RSD). Procedural safeguards are in place for children undergoing these procedures [3].

At the core of this determination is the process of assessing credibility. This is often defined as a step towards deciding how to weigh applicants’ statements and other evidence when making an asylum claim [4]. Most children, as all asylum-seekers, experience tremendous difficulty establishing protection status if found not credible. Indeed, credibility is the biggest reason for refusal of children’s applications. To be seen as credible, children are expected to give consistent, self-experienced, and coherent accounts of their past, sometimes with no independent adult or legal representative to support them. 


Unpacking identity construction


The fixation on credibility is connected to the ‘epistemological outlook of decision-makers working within a quasi-scientific culture of authenticity’, where the child’s narrative is linked to whether it fits legislative standards [5]. The child’s ability to convey her narrative is dependent upon whether her account matches the identity created through the knowledge acquired by the decision-maker via the child’s testimony. This identity is based on an epistemic outlook, pre-defined regarding how asylum and childhood are conceived by that decision-maker, and on what the decision-maker believes to be right regarding rules he/she is confronted with. Here, children emerge as an ambivalent construction. This ambivalence derives from whether they are seen primarily as migrants, asylum-seekers, or as children with particular rights and wishes. Hence, children are constructed between exclusionary policies directed at asylum-seekers, and at the same paternalistic views of what a refugee child should be like.


Factors that make children ambivalent include: age, cultural traits, level of maturity, migration routes, and expectations on how they act and react. These may lead to a simplification of their social identities, and on how these are manifested in how they narrate persecution. 


Representations at a glance: Decisions in the United Kingdom 

These constructions of identity can be seen in decisions issued in the United Kingdom [6]. In these cases, it is possible to identify how credibility and, subsequently, identity are constructed around the child’s narrative. This can be seen in how adjudicators assess children’s family dynamics, ability in making their own migration decisions, and disputes regarding age. This short piece highlights a reported appeal decision regarding family and sexual identity [7].

In (Gay men) Algeria (CG) an Algerian unaccompanied child claimed asylum ‘on the basis of facing risk of persecution as a gay or bisexual man’ [8]. He claimed to be afraid of his family and state authorities because of this. After being refused on credibility grounds (it was not accepted that he was gay or bisexual), an appeal of this decision was brought to the Upper Tribunal. The child’s appeal was also refused. The tribunal made two credibility findings. The first, disputing the facts of his departure from Algeria. The second, regarding his sexuality, as it also did not accept the child to be gay/bisexual. The tribunal said the child’s narrative was inconsistent and incoherent.


When considering expert evidence submitted by a psychiatrist supporting the child’s ‘chronic traumatised state’, explaining why he found it difficult to recount his past, the Tribunal stated that this was not easy to reconcile with the child’s inconsistent oral evidence. It was satisfying that the child understood the questions asked. He was simply not credible. It did not, however, explain how it formed knowledge of the child’s credibility regarding his age, family dynamics, and status as a child seeking protection because of his sexuality. It didn’t, as such, consider age to be relevant to how he demonstrated his sexuality, to the fear he had in those circumstances. It saw the child as an asylum-seeker first, expecting him to provide an adult-like account of his experience. Once that didn’t happen, it found the whole case untrue.


The decision further stereotyped the child’s family dynamics. His age, in this case, was not relevant to how he related to his family. The family, likewise, was not an efficient persecutor. Hence, paragraph 212 states that ‘the appellant’s evidence before us was that before his parents were married his father would take drugs and was “always drunk”. When asked why his mother would want to marry … the appellant said that “he was good to her”’. What this demonstrates is that the child was deemed not credible in his own asserted identity as he was not aware of the motivations behind the actions of his family (which he was at risk of). Here, his views and actions as a child regarding his family were also secondary to his asylum-seeker status.


While it is recognised that substantial evidence was considered, this is a case where the child was clearly not able to adjust their narrative to the pre-defined institutional perspectives used. Likewise, adjudicators saw the child as too competent, justifying that he could not possibly have made the choices he made. This decision gives a small glimpse of diverse manners through which decision-makers construct and present their determinations, and on how they draw on their own views in representing and problematising children’s identities. 


Reshaping narratives


The case above shows that decision-makers’ assessments of children’s credibility impact how their narratives are constructed. This construction has larger consequences, as it impacts how these children are represented more generally, and on how policies are formulated to this population. This demonstrates that there is a disjuncture between ‘conceptual and policy categories and the lived experiences’ of children in this scenario [9]. This construction is based on binary (child or asylum-seeker) and non-complex understandings of children’s experiences, including of migration. 

We should continue to interrogate the consequences of this, questioning patterns out of these constructions, utilising credibility as a source to explore children’s intersection with the law applicable to it. By having a critical awareness of how these identities are constructed in this process, we are also able to ‘denaturalise their use as a mechanism to distinguish, divide and discriminate’ [10]. In turn, this may allow us to engage with, and even reshape how these migration narratives are constructed and repeated. 


Notes and references

[1] For the most recent data, see UNICEF’s latest statistics and graphics on refugee and migrant children.

[2] Freedom from torture. 2019. ‘Lessons not learned: The failures of asylum decision-making in the UK’, September 2019.

[3] Committee on the rights of the child. 2005. ‘General comment no. 6 (2005): Treatment of unaccompanied and separated children outside their country of origin’.

[4] Hungarian Helsinki Committee. 2013. Credibility Assessment in Asylum Procedures: A multidisciplinary training manual.

[5] Zagor, Matthew. ‘Recognition and Narrative Identities. Is refugee law redeemable?’, in Jenkins, Fiona; Nolan, Mark and Rubenstein, Kim. 2014. Allegiance and Identity in a Globalised World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 316.

[6] Freedom from torture 2019. 

[7] See the immigration and asylum chamber, for decisions on appeals.

[8] OO (Gay Men) Algeria CG vs Secretary of State for the Home Department, [2016] UKUT 65 (IAC), United Kingdom: Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber), 4 February 2016.

[9] Crawley, Heaven, and Skleparis, Dimitris. 2018. ‘Refugees, migrants, neither, both: Categorical fetishism and the politics of bounding in Europe’s “migration crisis”’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 44(1), 48-64: 59.

[10] Crawley and Skleparis 2018, ibid.


Diego Castillo Goncalves

Diego Castillo Goncalves is a doctoral researcher at the School of Law, Trinity College Dublin (TCD). His research interests include asylum, migration, ethics, and children's rights. He can be contacted on 

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