SciPost logo

Ambiguous Ages, Ambivalent Youths: How Asylum Seekers in Germany Navigate Age Categorization

Ulrike Bialas

Mig. Pol. 2, 003 (2023) · published 5 September 2023


Many of the unaccompanied young migrants who have sought asylum in Germany since 2015 do not own documentation of their birth dates or even know their exact ages. Yet asylum and youth welfare laws distinguish precisely between minors and adults, down to the day, thus making it necessary for the German state to estimate the birth dates of young migrants and compelling some of the migrants to claim to be minors. In this article, drawing on years of ethnographic fieldwork in Berlin, I examine four features of the German state’s age categorization regime that make it so powerful: the discretion of street-level bureaucrats; the weight of written records; a prioritization of precision over accuracy; and—most important—the ability of bureaucrats to switch between the previous three features at will. I analyze the strategies young migrants employ against this regime to influence the outcomes of their own age categorization as well as the challenges inherent in living as a minor or within liminal, uncertain age categories. The latter include widespread distrust and fear of being found out as well as feelings of infantilization and emasculation. I use age categorization as a context in which to reflect on the agency of migrants vis-à-vis state bureaucracies and conclude that young migrants can try to affect only the determination of their own birth dates but have little impact on the prevailing definitions of age and youth. This article thus contributes to the study of categorization processes in international migration, the possibilities for migrants’ resistance, and the politics of time.

Author / Affiliation: mappings to Contributors and Organizations

See all Organizations.