Forever Seventeen: The Contested Ages of Asylum Seekers in Germany

Ulrike Bialas

In her book project Forever Seventeen, Ulrike examines the contested ages of young asylum seekers in Germany, the divergent meanings the state and asylum seekers each attribute to age and the mechanisms through which an official date of birth shapes the trajectory of asylum seekers’ lives in Germany. Since 2015, hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied youth from the Greater Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa have sought asylum in Germany without identifying documents. Because age does not have much cultural or legal importance in parts of the Global South, many of them not only lacked bureaucratic evidence of their date of birth, but did not actually know their exact age. Germany, however, relies on a rigid distinction between minors and adults to determine eligibility for youth welfare, the applicability of asylum and residence laws, and the allocation of other crucial rights and resources. The German state has therefore faced the challenge of how to determine asylum seekers’ ages, while young asylum seekers themselves often believe that minority is their only chance for a safe and fulfilling life in Europe and therefore resort to the cumbersome process of establishing their minority and the infantilizing reality of living as a minor. Based on more than three years of ethnographic fieldwork with young, male asylum seekers in Berlin, as well as age examiners, social workers, and volunteers, the book shows the negotiations between the German state and young unaccompanied asylum seekers over their age and the daily struggles of living with a contested identity. Not only are dates of birth ultimately impossible to determine, the conflict over migrants’ minority also reveals the true complexity and cultural contingencies of the only at first glance natural category age. Age may not be the best proxy for migrants’ vulnerability at all, as a binary distinction between minors and adults obscures the nuances of youth, impedes the healthy desires for independence and self-actualization of those scrambling to be classified as minors, and leaves those classified as young adults outside vital state support systems.


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