Outrage over DNA testing for UK asylum seekers

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.
Update: ScienceInsider has an additional post with further commentary from experts on the Agency's proposal, and a Q&A dealing with various questions raised by the scientific critics.

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From both ethical and scientific point of view it would be unacceptable to base the decision of a person's country of origin on her genetic data and the results of a forensic investigation. However, the response, I quote: "The results of the combination of these procedures may indicate a person's possible origin and enable the UKBA to make further enquiries" leaves hope that these methods will be used just to narrow down the list of countries to check with.

By hat_eater (not verified) on 29 Sep 2009 #permalink

ScienceInsider's carrying two followup posts with more information on the tests and the reactions to them:

Q: What isotopes are being tested?

A: Again, that is not clear. The documents obtained by ScienceInsider donât identify them, though the use of hair and nail samples suggests that the Border Agency will test for âlighterâ isotopesâthose of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and sulphurâthat incorporate into soft tissues, rather than the heavier, metallic isotopes of strontium and lead that fix into bones and teeth.

See Key Questions on Nationality Testing and U.K. Border Agency Docs and Expanded Reactions

The Science Insider article notes:

The Border Agency has not yet responded to a request to identify the scientists it is working with, nor has it cited any scientific papers that validate its DNA and isotope methods.

This reminded me of the Forensic Service's (mis)use of Low Copy Number DNA analysis in the Omagh bomb trial of 2008 - see:


In this case, the defendant was rescued by a judge, after defense experts argued that the LCN test was both unreliable and unvalidated.

As the Science Insider article also notes:

Having their fate rest on unproven methods is particularly dangerous for asylum-seekers in the United Kingdom, [...], because unlike criminal defendants, they have limited or no rights to challenge evidence or appeal.

Apparently, UK immigration is being run by low grade morons. What more can you say of this?

Who even knows their own ancestry? I've known way too many folks who were terribly surprised when they've actually investigated their family tree -- I recall seeing Louis Gates Jr. running his mtDNA and being localized as Parisian.

In principle, this is stupid, dumb, cretinous, etc. You can not apply population level data to come to any conclusions about individuals -- the information is simply not there, the variability is too large, ...

It's a basic principle of science -- aggregate data does not allow you to backtrack to individual data, you can only go the other way.

Wow. So the fact that I'm carrying a mixture of Irish, Scots, Norse, Dutch, East Baltic and Italian lineages, as well as the more normal Saxon and Romano-celtic would say what about my status as a UK citizen? A full analysis might get it right (or at any rate come to the conclusion that I'm a north-European mutt), but if they're only looking at a few specific markers there could be all sorts of confusion.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 29 Sep 2009 #permalink

Oh, I think that's dreadful. I can imagine a number of problems with this, including issues of parentage resulting from very bad situations that might not be reflected in the DNA. A woman may be culturally and genetically one group, but her offspring could be different through force.

They could also be different by choice, too, but that doesn't mean her kids should be barred from anything because of that.

That's seriously fraught with problems.

This development is dangerous and will create a discussion which I hope is informative to the UK government, specifically the fact that DNA is not associated with nationality. The state of the art in DNA testing is inadequate for determining what country I am now living in or where I have lived, people move. I think it is the responsibility of educators to communicate to UK Border Agency immediately regarding this unfortunate decision. Ignorance about DNA testing continues at multiple levels.

By David R Bachinsky (not verified) on 30 Sep 2009 #permalink

look, don't get exercised, this should be used only in the context of bayesian assessments of someone's story. refugees and what not routinely say things that are really hard to verify. these sorts of methods (especially for africa) are not coarse, but then so are the methods used generally in terms of how asylum seekers and what not are evaluated.

Razib @8:


Christina Boswell (2008). The political functions of expert knowledge: knowledge and legitimation in European Union immigration policy. Journal of European Public Policy, Volume 15, Issue 4 June 2008, pages 471 - 488

OK, this is not my normal bedtime reading, but her introduction hit a chord - albeit one I went googling for:

Bureaucratic organizations are dependent on expert knowledge in a variety of ways. On the traditional Weberian account, bureaucracies are characterized by the rationality of their structures and action (Weber 1970: 220), implying a concern to ensure decisions are based on sound reasoning and empirical knowledge. Expert knowledge is thus valued in an instrumental sense, helping the organization to deliver its goals. But the Weberian account also implies a second, more symbolic function of expert knowledge: the use of knowledge as
a means of legitimizing particular decisions, or legitimizing bureaucratic domination per se. On this account, knowledge signals the organizationâs conformity to rational rules, underpinning the authority of policy-makers and their decisions. So in the first case, knowledge is valued for its instrumental role; in the second, it is valued symbolically, as a means of demonstrating the credibility of the organization or its decisions.

I think the argument being made is that, given our best hope of DNA testing is that it can confirm ancestral background and not nationality (which is a social construct), the real use of this test in this setting, is to legitimate politically contentious decisions.

Thanks A.H.O. - the link to your petition now seems to be circulating, but I linked it in Daniel's follow-up too:


Nature has an editorial out:

Genetics without borders
Nature 461, 697 (8 October 2009) doi:10.1038/461697a

A UK government scheme to establish nationality through DNA testing is scientifically flawed, ethically dubious and potentially damaging to science.

Look folks if you are so concerned about refugees, real or imagined, take them in, look after them, pay their social security and medical costs, just don't burden me.

My country is being bombarded with refugees. Personally I would tell them to go home and face the music rather than take the gutless way out and running off to a foreign country which happens to be affluent and have good welfare. By and large those refugees are just illegal economic immigrants.

For those who are ignorant, where you grow up as a child is reflected in your teeth. Radioactive elements are absorbed from water you drank as a child. Yes they can tell where you come from whether it is in Europe, what part of Europe or what district in Europe. It is very accurate. As to dna testing, it is good for people to prove their bona fides rather than just taken on word. Many of these illegals are out and out liars.

Stop being good doing idiots and face reality. You are being duped, falling easy prey to the scams and ruses of those poor "refugees".