Unreliable tests used to deport refugees

May 15, 2002


The Australian government is using dental and wrist x-rays as a means of determining the age of refugees. Critics say these tests are highly inaccurate and scientifically unfounded.

Legislation was passed by the Senate in June 2001 that allowed the use of dental and wrist x-rays to determine an unidentified person's age.

The dental test looks at the eruption of molars and development of wisdom teeth. The wrist x-ray measures the fusion of bones in the wrist. Numerous medical authorities agree that these tests are not reliable.

A paper produced by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in Britain pointed out that "the accuracy of estimation of age from hand radiography amongst groups that have not been studied in detail remains in doubt... The determination of age is a complex and often inexact set of skills, where various types of physical, social and cultural factors all play their part, although none provide a wholly exact or reliable indication of age, especially for older children".

According to Professor Herbert Frommer, chairperson of radiology at New York University's David B. Kriser Dental Center, the eruption of wisdom teeth can happen at any time between the ages of 17 and 21, and can be further delayed by many factors, including illness. "It is my opinion that it is impossible to make an exact judgement based on radiographs of whether an individual is above or below the age of 18", he said.

Dr Nalton Ferraro, of the Children's Hospital in Boston, has written that chronological age, dental age and skeletal age are not always the same in a given individual. This is accepted by paediatricians and dentists.

In Australia, there have been allegations that these unreliable procedures have been used to deport refugees fleeing poverty and persecution.

A source at the Brisbane Refugee Health Network revealed that an African girl who had been sent to Australia by her grandparents to avoid genital mutilation was subjected to x-ray tests. It was determined that she was not a minor and was deported.

There have also been claims that unaccompanied Afghan minors have been classified as adults after dental and wrist x-rays. As a result, their claims for refugee status have been rejected.

From Green Left Weekly, May 15, 2002.
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