Section 58(1) IPA defines as vulnerable persons individuals ‘such as persons under the age of 18 years (whether or not accompanied), disabled persons, elderly persons, pregnant women, single parents with children under the age of 18 years, victims of human trafficking, persons with mental disorders and persons who have been subjected to torture, rape, or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence.’ The provision, however, applies solely to the application of Sections 53 to 57, which refer to content of international protection.
Screening of vulnerability
Regulation 8 of the European Union (Reception Conditions) Regulations 2018 provides for the establishment of a vulnerability assessment process. Until January 2021 however, no standardised assessment was carried out in respect of vulnerable international protection applicants, despite this being a clear requirement under EU law. At the end of January 2021, a pilot project to assess the vulnerability of applicants was established at Balseskin reception centre in Dublin. The pilot scheme was subsequently extended to all new international protection applicants and aims to determine whether the applicant has special reception needs arising from any vulnerabilities identified. As of January 2023, the pilot programme continued. As of October 2022, approximately 2,114 assessments were undertaken with 1,024 individuals identified as vulnerable.
In September 2022, IPAS published a Vulnerability Assessment Pilot Programme Policy, setting out the nature and purpose of the vulnerability assessment. Pursuant to the newly established Policy, and, in response to significant pressure on IPAS resources, the vulnerability assessment procedure was also altered substantially. Vulnerability Assessment questionnaires were provided to all individuals making an application for international protection. Questionnaires were made available to applicants in a number of languages, both at their accommodation centres and online via IPAS’ website. A referral form for service providers and third parties working with international protection applicants was also made available and could be completed by the service provider with the applicant’s consent. Both documents contain a series of questions relating to the vulnerability indicators contained within the Reception Conditions Directive.
The applicant, or service provider, is required to return the questionnaire to the IPAS Resident Welfare Team by email or post. Assessment Officers from the Resident Welfare Team review all returned questionnaires to determine the applicant’s vulnerability status. Whereby an assessment indicates that an applicant has one or more vulnerability the Assessment Officer may contact them to discuss their vulnerability further. In some cases, whereby an assessment indicates a high level of vulnerability, the Assessment Officer may also refer the person for further assessment with an IPAS Social Worker.
In the experience of the Irish Refugee Council, many applicants who have sought vulnerability assessments under the revised procedure have yet to be contacted by IPAS’ Resident Welfare Team, despite numerous applicants presenting with evident and significant vulnerability. The Irish Refugee Council also remains concerned about the lack of information provided to applicants regarding the assessment. It has become apparent in our contact with clients that many individuals undergoing the vulnerability assessment are not aware of the purpose of the assessment, nor do they understand what the information acquired will be used for. In many cases, individuals undergoing vulnerability assessments have recently arrived in the State, often have limited English. The lack of available information is particularly troubling as applicants are not properly equipped to fully communicate their circumstances.
Age assessment of unaccompanied children
Section 14 IPA states that where it appears to an immigration officer or an officer of the IPO that a child under the age of 18 years, who has arrived at the frontiers of the State or has entered the State and is not accompanied by an adult who is taking responsibility for the care and protection of the child, the officer shall inform, as soon as practicable, the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) and thereafter the provisions of the Child Care Act 1991 apply.
Under the system governed by the Refugee Act 1996, interviews and age assessment tools were used to assess age and no statutory or standardised age assessment procedures appeared to be in existence. In the asylum procedure, ORAC would firstly form an opinion of the age of the person presenting to claim asylum prior to any referral to Tusla. Medical assessments were not carried out to determine age. Tusla would then conduct a general child protection risk assessment, which would explore age as part of that assessment. They used a social age assessment methodology which included questions about family, education, how the young person travelled to Ireland, etc. The social worker assessed the young person’s age based on how articulate they are, their emotional and physical developmental, etc. However, ORAC made the final decision as to the person’s age.
Previously, where the assessment could not establish an exact age, young people were not generally given the benefit of the doubt. If someone seemed over 18, even by a day, there was typically a decision to move the young person into adult accommodation.
The IPA contains a number of provisions relating to age assessment and identification of unaccompanied children. Section 24 IPA allows the Minister, or an international protection officer to arrange an examination to determine the age of an applicant to see if he/she is under the age of 18 years. An examination is required to be:
- performed with full respect for the applicant’s dignity,
- consistent with the need to achieve a reliable result, the least invasive examination possible, and
- where the examination is a medical examination, carried out by a registered medical practitioner or such other suitably qualified medical professional as may be prescribed.
The consent of the applicant and/or the adult responsible for him or her including an employee or other person appointed by Tusla is required for the age examination. Section 24(6) IPA requires that the best interests of the child is a primary consideration when applying Section 24. Section 25 also provides for an age examination to take place under the direction of a member of the Garda Síochána (national police) or immigration officer if they request the Minister to carry out such an examination when an applicant in detention appears to be under the age of 18 years. Detention for unaccompanied children is prohibited but detention may occur under Section 20(7)(a) IPA if two officials – two members of the Garda Síochána or immigration officers, or one member of the Garda Síochána and one immigration officer – believe the applicant is over 18 years pending an age examination.
The immigrant support organisation, Nasc, previously highlighted the ‘considerable concerns about Tusla’s age assessment procedures’, more specifically connected to the fact that no sufficient guarantees are in place with respect to age assessment procedures. The organisation was made aware of cases in which age disputed minors were accommodated in Direct Provision centres, with no access to appeal the initial age assessment, which is usually conducted at the frontiers of the State, and therefore unable to access the support and aftercare provided to separated children.  Neither the IPO nor Tusla collect statistics on age assessments conducted in Ireland.
In correspondence with the Irish Refugee Council in February 2022, it was confirmed that Tusla does not currently have a national policy or approved internal guidelines on age-assessments for use in determining the age of unaccompanied minors or separated children referred from IPO or Dublin Airport. The reason given for this was that there exists no provision in legislation for Tulsa to conduct such assessments. The relevant legislation for undertaking such assessments is the International Protection Act 2015, which confers the responsibility for conducting age assessments on the Minister for Justice. Thus, according to Tusla, the conducting of such assessments is not part of its statutory function.
Whereby cases are referred to Tusla, an assessment is undertaken in order to determine the eligibility of the young person for the provision of services under The Child Care Act, i.e., whether the individual is in need of the care and protection of Tusla. Determination of age is made giving benefit of the doubt where there may be insufficient supporting documentary evidence. If the individual is deemed not to be a child, they are then referred to the IPO in order to claim international protection.
It was noted that Consideration was given to developing guidance to support staff in the area of age assessments, however, following a deliberative process and legal advice this was not progressed into approved national policy or guidance for the agency.
Tusla are currently engaged in a further deliberative process in conjunction with its operational and legal services to determine an eligibility criterion for receipt of Tusla services. This draft procedure will be published once finalised and approved by Tusla’s National Policy Oversight Committee. As of January 2023, the policy had yet to be published, however, correspondence from Tusla to the Irish Refugee Council’s Independent Law Centre indicated that publication of the policy was to be expected in early course.
 Information provided by IPAS, December 2022.
 Emma Quinn, Corona Joyce, Egle Gusciute, European Migration Network, Policies and Practices on Unaccompanied Minors in Ireland, November 2014.
 ibid, 35.
 ibid, 13.
 Information provided by Tusla, August 2017.
 Information provided by Tusla, August 2022.
 Information provided by the Irish Refugee Council’s Independent Law Centre, January 2023.