According to the law, when an application for asylum is lodged by an unaccompanied child, the Aliens and Immigration Unit, which is the authority responsible for receiving asylum applications, must immediately notify the Head of the Asylum Service, who must immediately notify the Director of Social Welfare Services. In practice there is no proper identification mechanism, save for the police officers at the Aliens and Immigration Unit having to verify the ages on the asylum applications in order to identify children. However, this is not done systematically, nor is there a procedure to identify children who may have entered the country on false documents that show them to be over 18. Due to the lack of information both at the Unit where asylum applications are made as well as in detention centres, unaccompanied children are not always aware that it is to their benefit to report their real age.
The law provides that the Director of Social Welfare Services acts, in person or via an officer of the Social Welfare Services, as a representative of unaccompanied children in the procedures provided in the Refugee Law. For judicial proceedings, the Social Welfare Services ensure the representation of unaccompanied children pursuant to the Commissioner for the Protection of Children's Rights (Commissioner Appointment by the Court as Child Representative) Procedural Rules of 2014. Therefore representation remains with the Social Welfare Services throughout the asylum procedures except for judicial proceedings where the Commissioner for Children’s Rights is responsible for appointing legal representation. In view of this, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights is currently in the process of setting up a procedure where a lawyer will be appointed to represent, where needed, unaccompanied children in the judicial proceedings of the asylum procedure.
According to the law, guardianship has automatic and immediate effect, without a decision or act, whereas representation must be taken up and carried out as soon as possible. There is no procedural formality for the Social Welfare Services to take up either appointment and these appointments apply for all procedures.
The role of the representative entails assistance and representation during the administrative examination of the asylum application. In addition, the law provides that the Asylum Service shall ensure that the representative is given the opportunity to inform the unaccompanied child about the meaning and possible consequences of the personal interview and, where appropriate, how to prepare themselves for the personal interview. The Asylum Service permits the representative to be present at the first instance interview and ask questions or make comments, within the framework set by the responsible officer / caseworker who conducts the interview. On the other hand, the guardian is responsible for the overall well-being of the child, including accommodation, school arrangements, and access to healthcare.
Regarding the representation carried out by the Social Welfare Services, the appointed officer does not have adequate knowledge or training on legal or asylum issues, rarely meets with the child before the interview and, even in cases where they do, often no information is provided on the interview, the meaning of the interview and possible consequences of it. It has been noted that the children are often taken to their interviews on the scheduled day, without prior notice. During the interview the representative is always present, but as they usually have no prior contact with the child and no knowledge about the specific case, they are not in a position to contribute in a substantial way. In all cases monitored by the Cyprus Refugee Council, the representative has never asked any questions or made any comments after the interview, and further actions are rarely taken on behalf of the child, such as following up on the case in case of delay or keeping the child informed about the procedure.
In respect of the Dublin procedure, there have been cases where the representative of the child did not inform the Asylum Service of the existence of relatives in other European countries, leading to the expiration of the three month deadline to lodge a Dublin request.
In instances where the asylum application is rejected, the representative does not have the required legal knowledge to prepare the administrative appeal before the RRA, whereas until recently the law did not provide for representation in the judicial proceedings. Since the 2016 amendment to the Refugee Law, where an unaccompanied child needs to proceed with a judicial review of the asylum decision, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights appoints a lawyer for this purpose. The Commissioner carries out trainings from time to time to selected lawyers on the representation of children in asylum cases.
The legal and policy framework for unaccompanied children has been repeatedly criticised by the national Ombudsman, who has issued two reports on the issue, stating the gaps in both policy and practice. The main issues raised by the Ombudsman are the lack of early identification of unaccompanied children, their detention (this has since been resolved, as seen in Detention of Vulnerable Applicants), the care provided by the Social Welfare Services as the legal guardian, as well as the lack of an effective legal representative that is also provided by the Social Welfare Services, the lack of coordination between the relevant authorities, delays in the examination of their asylum applications and the age assessment procedure. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, after a visit to Cyprus in December 2015, also raised his concerns on issues related to unaccompanied children and legal representation.
At the end of 2018, the Commissioner for the Rights of the Child issued a series of three reports related to unaccompanied children, including a report on the representation of unaccompanied children. In this report, the Commissioner once again raises serious concerns on many issues related to representation and considers the existing framework to be in violation of the Asylum Directives. Such issues include the lack of representation for unaccompanied children with regard to access to reception conditions; legal representation before the Court is limited to asylum cases and not reception conditions; the law provides that unaccompanied children and their representative are provided with free legal and procedural information but the law does not foresee who provides such information; the Law does not provide for legal representation and the existing representation by the Social Welfare Service is problematic and the dual role of the Social Welfare service that acts as a guardian and representative.
There were no indications in 2019 of the legal representation of UASC improving. In 2019, 535 UASC applied for asylum, of which 203 were referred to age assessment and 194 were found adults. Currently the number of UASC in the country is 386.
Article 10 Refugee Law.
Information provided by the Cyprus Refugee Council.
Ombudsman, Intervention regarding the treatment of unaccompanied children, 29 May 2014; Report regarding the system of protection and representation of Unaccompanied Minors, 24 August 2015, 41/2015, available in Greek at: http://bit.ly/1iZeaPB.