ScienceInsider reports that plans by the UK Border Agency to employ DNA and isotope testing to test the origins of asylum seekers are being met with outrage by scientists and refugee advocates.
There’s not much information about the precise tests that will be employed, but what information has been made available has horrified a number of scientists including the University of Leicester’s Alec Jeffreys:
After reviewing the Border Agency’s plans, Jeffreys echoed those criticisms in an e-mail to Science: “The Borders Agency is clearly making huge and unwarranted assumptions about population structure in Africa; the extensive research needed to determine population structure and the ability or otherwise of DNA to pinpoint ethnic origin in this region simply has not been done. Even if it did work (which I doubt), assigning a person to a population does not establish nationality – people move! The whole proposal is naive and scientifically flawed.”
The ScienceInsider post carries further critiques from a wide variety of scientific sources. The Agency has released a response to the criticism:
“Ancestral DNA testing will not be used alone but will combine with language analysis, investigative interviewing techniques and other recognized forensic disciplines. The results of the combination of these procedures may indicate a person’s possible origin and enable the UKBA to make further enquiries leading to the return of those intending on abusing the U.K.’s asylum system. This project is working with a number of leading scientists in this field who have studied differences in the genetic backgrounds of various population groups.”
Leaving aside for the moment the larger ethical issues surrounding refugees, there is no problem in principle with using genetic data in combination with other sources of information to help guide decisions about a person’s geographical ancestry. The crucial issue is that it must be shown that the data are used in appropriate ways, and not given undue weight in making serious decisions about a person’s future.
Like Jeffreys, I’m skeptical that we have sufficient data on patterns of genetic variation within Africa to be able to use it to guide accurate decisions; until the Border Agency can demonstrate publicly that its models for geographical ancestry prediction is robust it would be inhumane to use them to decide on a refugee’s fate.