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

by Ulrike Bialas

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Authors (as registered SciPost users): Ulrike Bialas
Submission information
Preprint Link: scipost_202206_00029v2  (pdf)
Date accepted: 2023-03-16
Date submitted: 2023-02-07 07:26
Submitted by: Bialas, Ulrike
Submitted to: Migration Politics
Ontological classification
Academic field: Political Science
  • Migration Politics


Many of the young, unaccompanied migrants who have sought asylum in Germany since 2015 do not own documentation of their date of birth or do not even know their exact age. Yet asylum and youth welfare laws distinguish precisely between minors and adults, down to the day, making it necessary for the German state to estimate young migrants’ dates of birth and, in turn, compelling some young migrants to claim to be minors. In this article, drawing on multiple years of ethnographic fieldwork in Berlin, I examine the particular 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 importantly—the ability to switch between these three features at will. I analyze the strategies young migrants employ against this age categorization regime to influence the outcome of their own categorization and the challenges inherent in living as a minor or with liminal, uncertain age categories: widespread distrust and fear of being found out as well as feelings of infantilization and emasculation. I use age categorization as an opportunity to reflect on questions of migrants’ agency vis-à-vis state bureaucracies and conclude that young migrants can only try to affect the determination of their own dates of birth, not prevailing definitions of age and youth. This article thus contributes to the study of categorization processes in international migration, possibilities for migrants’ resistance, and the politics of time.

Published as Mig. Pol. 2, 003 (2023)

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