French court approves bone age testing for child migrants

Authorities in France can now use results from a bone age test to support a decision on whether a migrant qualifies for protection under child services. The use of these tests was approved by the French Constitutional Council on 21 March 2019.

The left-hand x-ray was originally developed in the 1930s to determine if a child is below the normal level of skeletal maturity. It uses comparison of growth plates on a child’s wrists with those of a child of the same gender and age in a bone atlas.

Using the x-ray in such cases is seen as controversial as it was widely considered to be less accurate with older children. Bone tests with older children are said to have a margin of error of 18 months up to three years, meaning that a child claiming to be 15 can be anywhere between 12 and 18. Additionally, many scientists claim social and nutritional factors can influence skeletal maturity in children.

The case brought before the Council involved a Guinean migrant, identified as Adama S., who arrived in France in 2016 and claimed to be 15 years old. He refused the bone age test and was exempted as consent was mandatory. He was eventually taken into the care of child services.

However, a year later, a juvenile court in southwest France ruled that he was an adult and removed him from child social services. Adama appealed to the Lyon Court of Appeals, which in turn estimated his age to be between 20 and 30 years.

In the absence of legal documents, which can be lost on the migration journey, there are few alternatives to the bone tests for accurately assessing a person’s age. The results of the bone age test, however, should not be used as the sole factor in determining a minor’s age, the Constitutional Council said. The highest constitutional authority in France added that “the person being tested gets the benefit of any doubt,” and “The maturity of a person cannot be deduced from his refusal to submit to a bone examination.”

The number of migrants who declare themselves as unaccompanied minors arriving in France rose to some 17,000 in 2018 from 6,000 in 2015. Few of these migrants arrive in France with all their legal documents.

Although designed to ascertain the age of migrants in the absence of documents and when psychological evaluations cast doubt on the claim, human rights activists say the ruling risks leaving many children who deserve protection to fend for themselves.

  TMP – 12/04/2019 

Photo: Gerard Bottino/Shutterstock. Rally in support of unaccompanied child migrants. Marseille, France – September, 2018.