July 2010


Proof of age required

Estimating age in adults without birth records

Volume 39, No.7, July 2010 Pages 518-521

Christine Phillips

Shanti Narayanasamy


Many adults from refugee source countries do not have documents of birth, either because they have been lost in flight, or because the civil infrastructure is too fragile to support routine recording of birth. In Western countries, date of birth is used as a basic identifier, and access to services and support tends to be age regulated. Doctors are not infrequently asked to write formal reports estimating the true age of adult refugees; however, there are no existing guidelines to assist in this task.


To provide an overview of methods to estimate age in living adults, and outline recommendations for best practice.


Age should be estimated through physical examination; life history, matching local or national events with personal milestones; and existing nonformal documents. Accuracy of age estimation should be subject to three tests: biological plausibility, historical plausibility, and corroboration from reputable sources.

In many non-Western countries, it is common for people not to know the date and month of their birth, and in some areas and socioeconomic strata, it is common not to know one’s year of birth. There are many reasons for inaccurate or indeterminate birth dates: dates of birth may be customarily pegged against agricultural dates such as the first harvest; documents may have been lost or destroyed due to war or displacement; or births may not have been registered because of a lack of access to governmental institutions. While the issue of ‘indeterminate age’ is becoming less frequent in the younger generation of refugees, it is widespread among the older cohort. This problem has many repercussions in a country like Australia in which correct identification – based on correct name and date of birth – is paramount to legitimacy and thus ‘membership’ of the citizenry. Age is one of the most frequently used criteria to determine access to essential services, systems and entitlements, particularly important to newly arrived refugees.

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