Winner of the Vuoden Tiedekynä award Anna-Maria Tapaninen addresses the culture relating to the suspicion of age in the management of immigration

This year, Kone Foundation's Vuoden Tiedekynä prize of €25,000 is awarded to docent Anna-Maria Tapaninen’s article Rajalla laboratoriossa: iän arviointia, iän määrittämistä ja ikämääräyksiä (At the Borderline in the Laboratory: Age Assessment, Age Determination and Orders of Age), published in issue 3/2018 of the magazine Tiede & Edistys. The article discusses the assessment and determination of age in situations where young people who are crossing national boundaries lack reliable documents. Tapaninen reaches the conclusion that when age is determined in situations like these, there is always tension between testing, which is considered objective, and uncertain interpretation. The winner of the Tiedekynä award was selected from among 14 candidates by Professor Emerita Riitta Jallinoja.
Anna-Maria Tapaninen. Kuva / Image: Annukka Pakarinen

No sociological studies on age assessment have been published prior to this in Finland or elsewhere, only narrow reports. The article is based on diverse interview material and written sources. Tapaninen has interviewed immigration authorities, forensic dentists and geneticists, non-governmental organisations’ experts and lawyers, as well as the parties involved. In addition, she has studied administrative documents and court rulings.

Tapaninen begins by examining the role of DNA analyses and medical age determination within the current Finnish immigration policy. She then discusses the nature and probative force of the information pursued in the age assessment process, and examines DNA analyses, X-ray examinations and visual age evaluation. Finally, the author ponders how age determination becomes an order of age, using the concept coined by the young people themselves, and its consequences for young asylum seekers.
She demonstrates how unreliable the information is that the authorities treat as completely reliable, even though there is a great deal of controversy on age analyses. In the decision-making, the unreliability of the result is pushed aside and the evidence is considered objective. The suspicions about their age cause a great deal of pressure on the young people who have arrived unaccompanied.

 

The ambiguity of the asylum process seems arbitrary to the young

Riitta Jallinoja, who selected the winner, writes the following about her reasoning: “From the sociological point of view, the best thing about the analysis is that Tapaninen demonstrates how difficult it is to build categories, while precision is exactly what is expected in the determination of boundaries. In addition, the article demonstrates in a great way the necessity of making decisions on the basis of conflicting assessments from many parties. ”

Tapaninen herself states: “The main problem is where and how the laboratory result is used. It is based on ever-changing regulations, administrative definitions of policy, discussions on immigration policy and continuous ambiguity. Every stage of the asylum process – from the decision to carry out an age assessment to the potential laboratory test, the forensic interpretation of the result, the determination of age by the Finnish Immigration Service, the potential appeal about the asylum ruling and finally the consequences of the ruling – carries with it ambiguity and, for the young people themselves, often anxiety-inducing incomprehensibility and arbitrariness. If anything, the aim seems to be to expose adults posing as minors, rather than to ensure the best interests of the child.”

“Determining that an 18-year-old person is a minor is less dangerous than determining that a young person is an adult. For example, a young person who has been determined an adult can be more easily taken into custody or returned to their country of origin, where they may no longer have any ties. Although NGOs have criticised age testing, the subject has not been seriously discussed in Finland. At the same time in the UK, paediatricians, human rights organisations and the government have severely criticised these practices, with the result that testing has been abandoned. Sweden too has seen strong resistance recently,” Tapaninen says.

 

How do decision-makers obtain research information?

The Tiedekynä competition got Kone Foundation’s Director of Research Funding Kalle Korhonen thinking about how high-quality research in social sciences written in Finnish influences decision-making.

“The high-quality articles on current topics, which took part in the competition, are more approachable for decision-makers than international articles in journals. How can this important research data be better brought to decision-makers? That is what journals and their supporters must think about.”

Anna-Maria Tapaninen is a docent of social and cultural anthropology at the University of Helsinki. Since defending her doctoral thesis in social anthropology, she has studied the anonymous abandonment of children in various institutes in Europe in the 19th century. In recent years, her research has dealt with the use of biotechnology in the management of migration. She is currently studying the reception of asylum seekers who are unaccompanied minors.

The Kone Foundation’s Vuoden Tiedekynä is an annual award for academic articles that demonstrate exemplary use of the Finnish language. This year, the award was granted to a nomination from the field of social sciences. This is the largest award granted for academic writing in Finland and it was now presented for the ninth time.

Read the award-winning article (in Finnish)