U.K. Border Agency reinstates DNA tests, sort of

Published 17 October 2009

Africans who want to immigrate to the U.K. found a relatively easy way to do so: they seek political asylum, saying they come from war-ravaged countries; the U.K. Border Agency wanted to make sure, by checking their DNA, that they come from the war-ravaged countries they claim to come from; scientists criticized the scheme as “naive” and “scientifically flawed,” so the UKBA suspended it — only to reinstate it the next day, partially

We reported two days ago that the U.K. Border Agency had “temporarily suspended” its controversial nationality DNA testing pilot (12 October 2009 HSNW). Yesterday, the agency changed its position again, saying the program will go ahead, but the results will not be used to decide asylum seekers’ fate.

Chris Williams writes that a Home Office spokeswoman told him that DNA fingerprints and isotope analysis will be collected from asylum seekers, but “they will not be used for evidential purposes on individual cases. The Human Provenance Pilot aims to use ancestry and the chemical composition of asylum seekers’ bodies to help determine their nationality. It aimed in particular to address the problem of African immigrants falsely claiming to come from conflict-ravaged Somalia, a ruse known as “nationality swapping.”

Williams writes that, originally, those applying for asylum were to be told that refusal to submit to the tests “undermines your claim to be a refugee.” The spokeswoman said UKBA was working on new instructions that will not include such threats. “We have always been clear that this is a pilot program and as such we keep its terms of reference under review,” UKBA said. “We continuously look at new and improved ways to ensure that we can ascertain the correct identity and nationality from every asylum seeker. There was never any suggestion that these tests would be used in an isolated or conclusive way and we will carry out a full review of the pilot before it is rolled out.”

The Human Provenance Pilot has provoked heavy criticism from the scientific community. A memo announcing its temporary suspension, for an indeterminate period, was posted to the UKBA Web site late last week. Scientists welcomed the move, but the text was altered soon after.

It now states:

Alterations have been made to the nationality swapping - Isotope analysis and DNA testing process. This process continues to operate.

The present instruction has been withdrawn whilst amendments are made.

The Home Office spokeswoman said today the previous memo had been replaced because it was unclear.

News the pilot is going ahead will no doubt lead to more harsh comments from geneticists. An editorial in Nature, published before UKBA posted its “temporary suspension” order, condemns the DNA pilot as “scientifically flawed, ethically dubious and potentially damaging to science.”

Sir Alec Jeffreys, the inventor of DNA fingerprinting, described the scheme not only as “scientifically flawed, but said it was also “naive,” making “huge and unwarranted assumptions about population structure in Africa.” Professor Mark Thomas, a geneticist at University College London, said mitochondrial DNA, which the pilot was partially based on, was completely useless for determining nationality. “You’d be better off looking at the color of their shoes,” he told Williams.