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 sets out an identification mechanism. Specifically, it provides that an individual assessment shall be carried out to determine whether a specific 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, and 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: specifically, the competent officer at the place where the claim of asylum is made fills a special document indicating any special reception and/or procedural needs of the claimant as well as the nature of such needs. The type of that document is not specified in the law but according to the Asylum Service it has been provided.
The Refugee Law also provides that during the preliminary medical tests which are performed to all asylum seekers, a report will be prepared by the examining doctor, a psychologist, or another expert, which will 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 will 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 that applies in case an asylum seeker presents him or herself to Social Services and “whenever this is possible”.
The above amendments 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, which has also been noted by EASO again in the 2021 operating plan for Cyprus. 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 take place fragmentally, while the assessment tools and approaches to be used are neither defined nor standardised. Relevant to that, 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 – being 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 the efficient and timely coordination among the involved agencies.
In recent years steps are being taken gradually to improve the identification and assessment of vulnerable persons by the Asylum Service with the support of EASO, UNHCR, and the Cyprus Refugee Council, and the results of these efforts are steadily becoming evident. However, the efforts as described below are often fragmented or lack consistency leading to cases still going unidentified, thus confirming the need for a comprehensive and effective mechanism.
According to the Asylum Service, they have provided a relevant form and trained the authorities where asylum applications are made as well as other authorities (Labour Office, Social Welfare Services, and others) to identify vulnerable persons or indications that a person may be vulnerable. However, this is limited to visible signs and there is no other assessment tool used. Training is also provided by UNHCR from time to time and EASO as part of the Special Support Plans (see annual plan 2019, 2020 and 2021). Regardless of the trainings, vulnerable persons and their special reception and/or procedural needs are still identified in a non-standardised manner. This might happen during contact with the Welfare Services, during the interview for the examination of the asylum application, and by local NGOs offering community services and support. There are no available statistics or official information on the effectiveness of this procedure.
In 2019, the Asylum Service carried out screenings of vulnerabilities at the First Reception Centre ‘Pournara’ in Kokknotrimithia, however these were not full assessments and the results indicated that cases were going unidentified. From March 2019 through to early 2020 and the present moment, the Cyprus Refugee Council carried out vulnerability assessments at the Centre using relevant UNHCR tools and, through this process, identified a sufficient number of vulnerable persons that were referred to the responsible authorities. Such referrals led to cases of vulnerable persons being allocated to specialised examiners at the Asylum Service, as well as priority given to such cases. However, it is not clear if any other procedural guarantees are being applied.
From mid-2019 and onwards, efforts have been made by the Asylum Service and EASO, in collaboration with UNHCR and the Cyprus Refugee Council, to set up a comprehensive vulnerability assessment procedure at the First Reception Centre, Pournara, including the development of a common tool to be used 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 EASO modules, however there is insufficient supervision and coordination of the team and high turnover of staff. Furthermore, due to the rise in the numbers of new arrivals and then the developments due to Covid-19, these efforts were put on hold from March until October 2020. Efforts resumed in October and vulnerability assessments have been taking place by the team. However, due to overcrowding in Pournara, as well as measures due to Covid-19, the procedure has yet to be completed.
As part of EASO support to Cyprus, vulnerability experts have been provided since 2018 and will be increased in 2021. EASO support since 2017 has led to more cases being examined in a timely and appropriate manner, yet it is still not clear if all such cases are being identified and receiving appropriate examination. Based on cases represented by the Cyprus Refugee Council in 2018, there have been issues relating to the duration of interviews, with some cases concerning vulnerable persons identified to have lasted five hours and, in a case of a victim of torture with ongoing physical pain, eight hours. However, there has been improvement noted in this regard in 2019 and 2020.
As already mentioned in Prioritised examination and fast-track processing, EASO deployed a total of 3 vulnerability experts and 1 vulnerability assistant in Cyprus in 2020. The latter was still present as of 14 December 2020, as well as one vulnerability expert. According to information provided by EASO, vulnerability experts support and consult EASO caseworkers during the first-instance asylum examination procedures and refer vulnerable applicants who have not been assessed as vulnerable during the registration phase to the competent authorities for further appropriate actions. In this context, 194 applicants were assessed as vulnerable during the period of May-December 2020.
According to EASO operating plan for 2021, a “Safe Zone” for vulnerable applicants (specific area should be assigned to persons with special needs and vulnerable applicants) will also become operational in 2021. Increased focus will be devoted to vulnerability screening in terms of the access to asylum procedure phase to ensure a timely and adequate response to vulnerable applicants’ needs.
The lack of an effective identification procedure prevents or delays (depending on the specific vulnerability and support consequently required) access to any available support, which is limited. In cases of victims of torture or violence, the lack of access to support will often impair the efficient examination of asylum applications as they do not receive prior counselling – psychological or legal – that may assist them to present their asylum claim adequately. However, when persons are identified and referred to caseworkers trained on vulnerable cases, the asylum seeker will receive an appropriate examination of their asylum claim and, in many cases, receive a form of international protection.
The lack of effective measures for identifying vulnerable persons was raised in the recent 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.
Age assessment of unaccompanied children
The Refugee Law provides that the Asylum Service may use medical examinations to determine the age of an unaccompanied child, within 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 unaccompanied child’s dignity, carried out by selecting less invasive exams, and carried out 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 of the medical examinations 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 carry out an examination to determine the age of the child, and the decision rejecting an application of an unaccompanied child who 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, while those for whom there are doubts regarding age will first have an interview, which is 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 will 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 he or she wants 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, 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.
The doctors carrying out the dental examinations have been trained by EASO. 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 and access will be provided only 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 to apply for material reception conditions and then 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, the Commissioner notes important gaps that still remain, such as: the lack of an overall multidisciplinary approach of 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.
According to the Social Welfare Services in 2019, 535 unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) applied for asylum out of which 203 UASC were referred for age assessment (including medical assessments) and 194 were found to be adults. In 2020, 308 UASC applied for asylum; 66 were referred to the Asylum Service for age assessment, out of which 55 were referred for further medical age assessment tests. Of the 50 that completed the assessment, 43 were found to be adults.
 Article 9KΓ Refugee Law.
 Articles 9KΔ(a) and 10A Refugee Law.
 Information provided by EASO, 26 February 2021.
 Information provided by EASO, 26 February 2021.
 UNCAT, Concluding Observations on the Fifth Report of Cyprus, December 2019.
 Article 10(1Z)(a) 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.