Academics from the University of Hong Kong yesterday launched the world's first foundation to promote universal birth registration and offer age assessments via dental X-rays.
Led by Dr Jayakumar Jayaraman, a PhD candidate at the university's dentistry faculty, the DOB Foundation "aims to encourage consistent procedures for recording births, especially in developing countries".
The foundation hopes to be able to offer age assessments to unregistered children by using dental X-rays to chart tooth development against age.
Only half the world's children were registered at birth, Jayaraman said, adding that about 30 per cent of young people in China and 60 per cent in India were unregistered.
"Many people don't know who they are. They are already marginalised, and without an identity they get pushed further to the extreme margins of society," Jayaraman said.
Professor of paediatric dentistry Gloria Wong Hai-ming said an individual's age could be assessed by the maturity of their teeth. She said that teeth followed a "consistent, sequential and organised pattern".
Jayaraman said the method was the most precise available and was accurate to about three months. But there were limitations and it was ineffective for people over 25 whose teeth had finished developing.
Birth registration was essential to ensure children's access to education and voting rights, but also to ensure fairness in criminal cases or asylum requests, Jayaraman said.
For example, in China, capital punishment can be applied to criminals only if they are 18 or over on the date of the offence. As such, the importance of having an accurate age was clear, said foundation adviser Dr Carl Leung Ka-kui.
In a recent case in Britain, the government was ordered to pay £1 million (HK$12.08 million) to 40 young asylum-seekers who were wrongly held in adult detention centres.
The foundation hopes to join forces with local non-governmental groups in India and China to help children in need.
In many countries, a certificate of age issued by a dentist was a legally valid document, Jayaraman said.