The Refugee Law defines the categories of persons considered as vulnerable. These are similar to Article 21 of the recast Reception Conditions Directive:
“[M]inors, unaccompanied minors, disabled people, elderly people, pregnant women, single parents with minor children, victims of human trafficking, persons with serious illnesses, persons with mental disorders and persons who have been subjected to torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence, such as victims of female genital mutilation.”
Screening of vulnerability
The Refugee Law provides for an identification mechanism. An individual assessment is to be carried out to determine whether a person has special reception needs and/or requires special procedural guarantees, and the nature of those needs. These individualised assessments should be performed within a reasonable time period during the early stages of the asylum procedure. Furthermore, the requirement to address special reception needs and/or special procedural guarantees applies at any time such needs are identified or ascertained.
The Refugee Law also provides that any special reception/procedural needs of applicants, identified by any competent governmental authority upon exercising its duties, need to be reported to the Asylum Service. It also provides a basic overview of the procedure to be followed: the competent officer at the place where the claim of asylum is made fills out a special document indicating any special needs and the nature of such needs.
Furthermore, the Refugee Law provides that during the preliminary medical tests, which are performed on all asylum seekers, a report is to be prepared by the examining doctor, a psychologist, or another expert, to indicate any special reception/procedural needs of the applicant and their nature. Furthermore, within a reasonable time period from the admission of a claimant in a reception centre and following personal interviews, the social workers and psychologists working in the facility are to prepare a relevant report to the Asylum Service indicating any special reception needs as well as their nature. Finally, the Social Welfare Services (SWS) are required to identify any special reception needs and to report them to the Asylum Service, but this applies only in case an asylum seeker presents him or herself to Social Services and “whenever this is possible”.
The above provisions acknowledge the need for identifying and addressing in a timely manner the special reception and procedural needs of vulnerable persons and introduce a basic framework of operation, as noted also by EUAA in the 2021 operating plan. However, further elaboration is required in order for an effective mechanism to be set up. In the absence of specific legislative or procedural guidelines, the identification and assessment of special reception and procedural needs has taken place inconsistently, while the assessment tools and approaches to be used were not defined nor standardised. Specifically, there is no provision for training of the staff engaged in the identification and assessment procedure, and the role of Social Welfare and Health Services –the most competent state authorities in relation to evaluating the needs of vulnerable persons – is rather confined. No monitoring mechanism of the overall procedure is foreseen which could contribute to efficient and timely coordination among the involved agencies. The lack of effective measures for identifying vulnerable persons was raised in the 2019 review on Cyprus by the UN Committee against Torture, specifically the lack of procedures to identify, assess, and address the specific needs of asylum seekers, including survivors of torture.
In an effort to address the issue in 2019, the Asylum Service started screenings of vulnerabilities at the First Reception Centre ‘Pournara’. However, these were not full assessments and the results indicated that cases were going unidentified. From March 2019 onwards, the Cyprus Refugee Council carried out vulnerability assessments at the Centre using relevant UNHCR tools and, through this process, identified and referred to the responsible authorities a significant number of vulnerable persons, which confirmed the need for an identification and assessment mechanism. From mid-2019 onwards, efforts were initiated by the Asylum Service and the EUAA, in collaboration with UNHCR and the Cyprus Refugee Council, to set up a comprehensive vulnerability assessment procedure at Pournara were the registration of the vast majority of asylum seekers takes place. This has included the development of a common tool for screening and assessment of vulnerable persons, a Standard Operating Procedure, and a team of vulnerability examiners to carry out the assessments. Vulnerability examiners receive training under relevant EUAA modules, however at times there has been insufficient supervision and coordination of the team as well as high turnover of staff. Furthermore, due to the rise in the numbers of new arrivals and then COVID-19, these efforts were put on hold from March to October 2020. The vulnerability assessment procedure resumed in October 2020 and continued throughout 2021 and 2022.
Moreover, according to the EUAA, support on special needs for 2022-2024 will also include the establishment of a permanent vulnerability working group among relevant stakeholders and the development of quality framework and monitoring tools and workflows. Finally, EUAA assistance will support the drafting and implementation of an overall identification and take-charge procedure and workflows for persons with special needs.
In 2021, the vulnerability assessment team comprised of eight members from EUAA, Asylum Service, UNHCR, CyRC, and a coordinator allocated from EUAA. The identification and referral system had initially improved, but the increase in applicants and the high turnover among vulnerability officers, particularly during the second half of the year, had a negative impact on the quality of the assessment. Newly recruited/assigned staff were not always adequately trained or offered guidance, and as a result, vulnerability assessments are often carried out in a non-uniform manner. There is no quality control system in place to ensure the efficacy of the findings and referrals. Furthermore, the findings of the vulnerability assessments primarily focus on special reception needs, whereas special procedural needs are not sufficiently explored and recorded, for instance, in the cases of LGBTIQ+ where the person may only have special procedural needs.
In 2022, the vulnerability assessment team is comprised of 10 vulnerability officers (5 officers from EUAA; 3 officers from CODECA; 1 officer from UNHCR; 1 officer from CyRC) and a coordinator appointed by EUAA. As in previous years, there was still a lack of a comprehensive SoP and referral pathways and results in vulnerability assessments, and referrals were often carried out in a non-uniform manner. Furthermore, there was no system in place for quality control of the vulnerability assessments to ensure the efficacy of the findings and referrals. In addition, there continued to be a high turnover among vulnerability officers, however an improvement has been noted in the training and guidance offered to newly recruited/assigned staff. In an effort to address the above the vulnerability team conducts meetings (approximately once or twice per month) to discuss guidelines on identifying vulnerabilities, guidelines on interviewing (i.e., families; single parents with minor children), as well as to discuss other issues that arise, including challenging cases identified. In the second half of the reporting period, a training seminar on Trafficking in Human Beings was organised by EUAA for all vulnerability officers. EUAA is currently designing SoP for vulnerability assessments with clear instructions on procedures, vulnerability indicators, and instructions for identification.
During 2021, 829 persons were identified as vulnerable during the registration of their asylum application. In addition, 162 applicants were assessed as vulnerable during their asylum interview phase and were referred to the competent authorities for further appropriate actions. In 2022, 2,800 persons were identified as vulnerable during the registration of their asylum application. The EUAA supports and coordinates vulnerability assessments in Pournara reception centre. In this context, during 2022, 1,505 persons were identified as presenting vulnerability indicators. In total, in 2022, 2,800 persons were identified as vulnerable during the registration of their asylum application.
In early 2023, the EUAA in collaboration with the Asylum Service finalised the SOPs for the Vulnerability Assessments as well as the new VA form and referral form for the SWS. At time of publication these are yet to be implemented.
Although progress has been noted with regards to the vulnerability assessment procedure, some gaps remain. Specifically, efforts are still required to improve a screening procedure of vulnerabilities, upon arrival to the Centre, to address time-sensitive special needs. Some vulnerabilities may be identified, especially visible signs such as heavily pregnant women or persons with physical disabilities, by Pournara’s operations personnel as well as EUAA information providers or registration officers. In such cases, the vulnerability assessment coordinator is informed and assigns these cases to the team on a priority basis.
Another important gap is the lack of a mechanism to address the identified needs and relevant referral pathways that continues to be a serious challenge and results in persons being identified as vulnerable but not necessarily receiving the required support, whether special reception conditions and/or procedural guarantees. The main – and often only – support received is temporary accommodation and emergency financial allowances upon exiting Pournara by the Social Welfare Services. However even this is not always provided, and in many cases, vulnerable individuals are released from Pournara without being assisted by an officer of the Social Welfare Services stationed at the centre. As a result, their access to special reception conditions upon exit is not always guaranteed.
Furthermore, access to mental health services, particularly psychological assistance, is also problematic, as there is no system to refer cases to state psychologists and the capacity of such services is often not sufficient to respond to the needs and lack interpretation services. Furthermore, there are every few NGOs offering such services, and cannot respond to the demand. In cases of severe mental health difficulties or emergency needs, e.g., risks or attempts of suicide, the person is referred to a psychiatrist at the Emergency department of the General Hospital.
Concerning potential victims of trafficking, due to lack of training and expertise among staff, during the first half of 2021, only a handful number of cases were identified and referred. Nevertheless, referrals to the National Trafficking Mechanism have increased following a training on human trafficking offered by EUAA to the vulnerability assessment team in 2021 and again in late 2022. The referred potential victims are interviewed by an officer of the Social Welfare Services, are informed of their rights and offered assistance, usually similar to other groups of vulnerable individuals (accommodation and emergency financial allowance). The referral forms are then forwarded to the Anti-trafficking Unit of the Police for the examination of the trafficking claims.
According to the EUAA, support on special needs for 2022-2024 will also include the establishment of a permanent vulnerability working group among relevant stakeholders and the development of quality framework and monitoring tools and workflows. Finally, EUAA assistance will support the drafting and implementation of an overall identification and take-charge procedure and workflows for persons with special needs.
Regarding the examination of asylum applications of persons with vulnerabilities, as part of EUAA support to Cyprus, vulnerability experts have been provided since 2018 and their number was increased in 2021. EUAA support has led to more cases being examined in an appropriate manner, yet there are still long delays for many such cases often reaching 3-4 years to receive a first instance decision. Furthermore, there are still issues related with the quality of the examination of asylum applications, including in cases of vulnerable persons or complex cases, such as LGBTIQ+ (see section: Regular Procedure, Interview).
Overall the lack of an effective identification and referral procedure prevents or delays, access to any available support, which in any case is limited. In cases of victims of torture or violence, the lack of access to support often impairs the efficient examination of asylum applications as they do not receive prior counselling – psychological or legal – that may assist them in presenting their asylum claim adequately. When persons are identified promptly and referred to caseworkers trained on vulnerable cases, the asylum seeker will usually receive an appropriate examination of their asylum claim and, in many cases, receive a form of international protection.
Age assessment of unaccompanied children
Under the Refugee Law, the Asylum Service may use medical examinations to determine the age of an unaccompanied child, in the context of the examination of the asylum application when, following general statements or other relevant evidence, there are doubts about the age of the applicant. If, after conducting the medical examination, there are still doubts about the age of the applicant, then the applicant is considered to be minor. Furthermore, the law provides that any medical examination shall be performed in full respect of the child’s dignity, carried out by selecting less invasive exams, and by trained professionals in the health sector so as to achieve the most reliable results possible.
The Asylum Service also has the obligation to ensure that unaccompanied children are informed prior to the examination of the application, in a language which they understand or are reasonably supposed to understand, about the possibility of age determination by medical examinations. This should include information on the method of examination, the potential impact of the results on the examination of their application, and the impact of any refusal of an unaccompanied child to undergo medical examinations. Furthermore, the Asylum Service must ensure that the unaccompanied child and/or representatives have consented to the carrying out of examinations to determine the age of the child. Lastly, the decision rejecting an asylum application of an unaccompanied child who has refused to undergo such medical examinations shall not be based solely on that refusal.
In practice, not all unaccompanied children are sent for an age assessment. Those for whom there are doubts will first have an interview, considered by the authorities as a psychosocial assessment, to determine if they should be sent for medical examinations. The psychosocial assessment is carried out by an Asylum Service caseworker, in the presence of a social worker/guardian and it mostly consists of taking down facts to assess whether these are consistent with the claim of being underage. The caseworker carrying out the assessment must have received training for this purpose but is not necessarily a qualified social worker or psychologist. The assessment also includes questions related to the asylum application. In Dublin cases, a child may be sent for medical examination when the country to which they are to transfer requires a medical age assessment as part of the examination of the Dublin request. The medical examination is comprised of a wrist X-ray, a jaw-line X-ray, and a dental examination. A clinical examination by an endocrinologist to determine the stage of development, upon consent of the child, is also mentioned in the procedure. However, in practice such an examination does not seem to be used due to the invasive nature.
Doctors carrying out the dental examinations have been trained by the EUAA. However, the training of all professionals carrying out age assessments does not seem to be ongoing and it is not clear if any of the doctors have since changed or if there has been further training.
Furthermore, a decision finding an asylum seeker to be an adult cannot be challenged administratively or judicially in itself but can only be challenged judicially when the asylum claim is rejected and as part of the appeal challenging the negative decision of the asylum application. Due to this, the Asylum Service does not provide access to the file and documents relevant to the age assessment until and in case of an appeal. Where results confirm the individual to be an adult and these results are communicated orally to the applicant, they are usually assisted in applying for material reception conditions and asked to leave the shelter for children as soon as possible.
The Commissioner of Children’s Rights issued an updated report on age assessment of unaccompanied children at the end of 2018, in which she stated that the procedure that had been adopted from 2014 onwards was a positive development. However, she noted important gaps that still remain, such as: the lack of an overall multidisciplinary approach to the procedure and the decision, especially noting the gaps in the psychosocial aspect of these; the absence of best interest determinations when deciding to initiate the age assessment procedure; the lack of remedy to challenge the decision that determines the age; issues relating to the role of the guardian and the representative in the age assessment procedures; and the conflict of interest that arises as both roles are carried out by the same authority. Attention was also paid to the lack of independence of both of these roles as they act on behalf of the national authority they represent. Since the Report and throughout 2022 no improvements have been noted and the issues raised by the Commissioner remain issues of concern.
In 2021, the IPAC issued a decision concerning an appeal submitted by a Somali national in 2016 against the first instance rejection of their asylum application. The judge concluded that the age assessment procedure was erroneous and that the principle of the best interest of the child had been violated due to the fact that the age assessment had been initiated by the Guardian, who by law is supposed to act on the best interest of the child; the age assessment was conducted without giving the applicant the right to a hearing instead medical exams were opted for; the medical report indicating that the applicant was likely an adult contained an element of doubt as to its accuracy. Thus, the age assessment decision was void, illegal and lacking any legal basis. As a result, the procedures that followed, namely processing of the application for international protection of the applicant under the consideration that he is an adult lacked any legal basis and was cancelled.
In 2022, another decision was issued by the IPAC related to the age assessment procedure, where the Court annulled a decision of the Asylum Service due to deficiencies identified in the age assessment procedure and failures to observe required safeguards and the best interest of the child. Specifically, the Court referred to the CJEU judgement A. and S. v Secretary of State for Security and Justice (Staatssecretaris van Veiligheid en Justitie) and explained that the date of filing the application for international protection is the one decisive in order to assess the refugee’s age with regard to the application of the family reunification procedure, and the authorities should have referred to the applicant’s age at the time of submitting/filing his application and not at the time of the medical examinations. Consequently, according to the minimum assessment limit of the method in question, the applicant may have been a minor at the time of the submission of his asylum application and the doubt has to be in favour of the minor, according to the refugee law. Based on these considerations and the deficiencies identified, the Court annulled the contested decision of the Asylum Service.
|Unaccompanied asylum-seekers children in Cyprus: 2019-2022|
|Applied for asylum||535||308||659||941|
|Referred for age assessment||203||66||59||109|
|Referred for medical examinations||Unknown||55||40||71|
|Found to be adults||194||43||33||30|
Source: 2019, 2020, 2021 Social Welfare Services; 2022 Asylum Service.
In 2022, 109 UASC were referred for age assessment, out of which 71 UASC were further referred for medical examinations as part of the age assessment. Of the 71 UASC, 16 were found to be minors, 30 were found to be adults, 22 refused to sign consent to undergo the medical examinations, 1 admitted to being over 18 and 2 are pending results.
 Article 9KΓ Refugee Law.
 Articles 9KΔ(a) and 10A Refugee Law.
 Information provided by Cyprus Refugee Council
 UNCAT, Concluding Observations on the Fifth Report of Cyprus, December 2019.
 Information provided by Cyprus Refugee Council
 Information provided by EUAA, 28 February 2022.
 Cyprus Asylum Service.
 Information provided by the EUAA, 28 February 2023.
 Cyprus Asylum Service.
 Based on cases represented by the Cyprus Refugee Council.
 Information based on cases represented by the Cyprus Refugee Council
 Article 10(1Z)(a) Refugee Law.
 Article 10(1H) Refugee Law
 Commissioner of Children’s Rights, Έκθεση της Επιτρόπου Προστασίας των Δικαιωμάτων του Παιδιού, Λήδας Κουρσουμπά, αναφορικά με την εκτίμηση της ηλικίας των ασυνόδευτων ανηλίκων αιτητών ασύλου, December 2018, available in Greek at: https://bit.ly/2U2P7hW, 18 and 32.
 Ibid, 29.
 Commissioner of Children’s Rights, Position Paper on the first-stage handling of cases of unaccompanied minors, The results of the investigation of complaints, consultation with NGOs and interviews with unaccompanied minors, November 2014.
 IPAC Case no. 601/2016, Y.D.M.O v. Asylum Service, Decision issued 31 December 2021.
 IPAC, Case No 698/19, S.A. v Republic of Cyprus, through the Asylum Service Decision issued 07 July 2022.
 Cyprus Asylum Service.