Childhood and Age

While the old adage “age is just a number” is applicable to much of life, it certainly does not apply to the legalities of the asylum process. In the past four weeks that I have been stationed with the Social Work Team for Separated Children Seeking Asylum, which cares for unaccompanied minors in Ireland, three asylum seekers have been age-assessed and determined to be older than eighteen years old. Whether they knew the benefits of being considered a minor in the Irish asylum process and lied to immigration officials or were confused when the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB) referred them to us, they are now in hostels and direct provision centers, additions to the faceless numbers waiting patiently to make their cases to stay in Ireland.

And yet, despite the privileges that being younger than eighteen provides in the system, most of the young people I work with by and far reject the term “child” in its colloquial sense. When I once unwittingly referred to one of our clients as a child, he seemed offended and promptly quipped that if he was a child, I was a grandmother.

Though his remark was obviously hyperbolic, the young man was correct in that we had different standards of maturity and concepts of age. While eighteen is the age of adulthood in Ireland and the US, it seems arbitrary to those from different cultures where sixteen year olds are not considered children and might even be parents. I understand that there needs to be a set number for legal adulthood because people can follow slippery slope logic to the extreme, but some fifteen year olds are equipped with the skills of adulthood and some nineteen year olds (like this one) are still figuring it out.

While clients might fall under the legal category of “child,” they have had to mature quicker than most of us. One of our clients is a twenty year-old who has been acting in loco parentis for his younger brother since the two arrived, and more recently for the rest of his siblings and mom after the Red Cross helped locate and reunify them. He has been acting like an adult since age thirteen, has known greater responsibility and pressure than most people experience in a lifetime, and yet has the same outwardly carefree and youthful disposition as others his age.

Some of our newer clients arrived in Ireland as part of the Irish Refugee Protection Program (IRPP) after having spent months in the Calais Jungle camps and having left home years before that. They have survived brutal living conditions alone and lived without supervision for much of their lives. I am not trying to suggest that the young people I work with are in any way stunted – they are incredibly resilient and talented, and they have much to offer Dublin in terms of economic and cultural value. However I do believe that in the race for the legal status that can jumpstart many of our clients’ lives after years of waiting, important foundational development can be neglected.

As children age out of our system and into aftercare at age eighteen, how do we simultaneously prepare them for adulthood, acknowledge their right to proper childhoods (whatever this entails), and avoid belittling them or babying them after all that they have experienced?

In terms of development and maturation, is it possible to regress for the sake of progress? Should these young people be given the opportunity to experience some of the carefreeness that they might have missed out on and that we associate with youth? Do they want that?

The Social Work Team’s guiding ideology is that of child-centeredness, meaning its members view and treat clients as children before they see them as asylum seekers. After having spent four weeks seeing what this translates to in everyday practice, I believe that it really is the best policy for the young people in our care. Child-centeredness informs social workers’ everyday agendas as they schedule dental appointments for their clients, sign them up for sports clubs, file their legal proceedings for them, and encourage them to think about education and their futures. The social workers cannot replace the void of missing parents, but they can help young people feel supported throughout the emotional and logistical challenges of the asylum process. Anyone, regardless of age and maturity level, finds comfort in the idea that someone else holds their best interest at heart.