UK Border Agency's pseudoscientific "race-detection" DNA/isotope tests has scientific experts "horrified"

The UK Border Agency has scientists "horrified" at a weird, eugenics-flavoured proposal to test asylum seekers' DNA to determine if they are truly and purely of the "race" they claim to be from. Even the scientists who pioneered DNA fingerprinting and related techniques call the idea "horrifying," "naive" and "flawed."
Science has obtained Border Agency documents showing that isotope analyses of hair and nail samples will also be conducted "to help identify a person's true country of origin." The project "is regrettable," says Caroline Slocock, chief executive of Refugee and Migrant Justice headquartered in London. Although asylum-seekers are asked to provide tissue samples voluntarily, turning down a government request for tissue could be misinterpreted, she says, "so we believe [the program] should not be introduced at all."

The Border Agency's DNA-testing plans would use mouth swabs for mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome testing, as well as analyses of subtle genetic variations called single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). One goal of the project is to determine whether asylum-seekers claiming to be from Somalia and fleeing persecution are actually from another African country such as Kenya. If successful, the Border Agency suggests its pilot project could be extended to confirming other nationalities. Yet scientists say the Border Agency's goals confuse ancestry or ethnicity with nationality. David Balding, a population geneticist at Imperial College London, notes that "genes don't respect national borders, as many legitimate citizens are migrants or direct descendants of migrants, and many national borders split ethnic groups."

Scientists Decry "Flawed" and "Horrifying" Nationality Tests

But wait, there's more!

Christopher Phillips, University of Santiago de Compostela: I had been asked earlier this year by colleagues in the UKFSS about the prospects of differentiating Somali ancestries from other populations in E[ast] Africa, however, I am sceptical about the precision possible beyond a simple five global group differentiation from limited typing of Y-chromosome/mtDNA/small-scale multiplexes of autosomal SNPs. Clearly there is a serious risk of falling into the trap of over-interpretation of population variation data that has limited scope. My suggestion this spring was to perform whole genome scans to isolate informative markers and begin to build these into sets of SNPs that could then be assessed with comprehensive reference populations. However, this does not amount to consultation on the correct way to develop and test a custom ancestry analysis system. I also doubt that my suggested approach to validating the system will be pursued, since a large number of samples would be required both within the relatively large region of Somalia and from surrounding populations such as those of Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea. Therefore a good deal of time, money and patience would be needed to find the best markers for the purpose and then test their efficacy....

Jane Evans, NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory: I can't imagine how you use [isotope evidence] to define nationality....It worries me as a scientist that actual peoples' lives are being influenced based on these methods.

U.K. Border Agency Docs and Expanded Reactions


  1. I wonder how long it’s going to take for this to all get chucked out by an appeals judge?

    Immigration lawyers will be lining up the expert witnesses for their first opportunity to get this stuff struck down as the utter pseudo-science it is.

    Besides, since when has race ever been an indicator of where someone has come from? Especially in the more nightmarish, war-torn parts of Africa where populations move around all the time.

    The UK Borders Agency is one of the most hideous manifestations of our current government’s attitudes. Unfortunately I can’t see the increasingly inevitable Tory government that will replace it in October being any better.

    On a connected issue, does anyone know why there seem to be so many people intent on making it to the UK? Many travel for months through several European countries before trying to get from France into the UK. Why the obsession with trying to get here and not any other European country which would seem to be just as good (if not better) places to live?

    Don’t get me wrong, I like my country (for all its faults) and I think that immigration has had a major positive impact so I welcome anyone who will go through that to get here, but I don’t get what makes us so much more attractive than France.

  2. Well apart from the erroneously assumed state handouts, and the free NHS, maybe it is just the fact we speak ENGLISH? The most likely 2nd language for many migrants to have a grasp of?

  3. Just goes to show there’s no invention so fanciful or nightmarish that you can’t find cops to sell it to.

    In 1996 (The Year of the Rat) ago, Houston prosecutors were busted by the Effa Bee Eye for distributing a dubious detection device called the Quadro Tracker, (now memorialized in the Skeptics’ Dictionary). It looked like a golf putter head with a walkie-talkie antenna. The head had a socket into which one could insert different chips, depending on the thing to be detected–drugs, gold, explosives.

  4. Why the UK versus other European countries? Same reason people from other European countries come to the UK: economic opportunities are better.

    And there’s the general perception that British people are more tolerant of other cultures (especially non-European and Eastern European) than other Europeans.

  5. Ok..HSL needs to be shut down NOW.


    Btw, I’m Irish, Welsh, English, Hungarian, and Blackfoot. That’s a terrorist DNA profile if I ever saw one.

  6. … considering that a recent (<10 years) survey of rural Englishmen threw up a couple of apparently-pure-Anglo-Saxon guys who turned out to have significant, unknown, and relatively recent (last 1000 years) west African ancestry? I'm am BOGGLED anyone thinks ancestry has ANYTHING to do with citizenship.

    Do the immigration services in the UK have the delusion that people from Africa are nailed to the ground at birth, or something?

    Human migration is not a recent phenomenon - war, trade, adverse and favorable weather, nomadic pastoralism, all are pressures that encourage movement of human populations with little regard to lines drawn on a map.

    This is also completely ignoring political boundaries moving over communities that haven't budged an inch!

    Oh god, I'm not even in this field and I can see the huge problems with this idea.

  7. Oh bugger. Stupid < ate my first paragraph. It was commenting about how a study in the last decade of a random sample of Englishmen uncovered a guy who appeared steriotypically Anglo-Saxon but turned out to have West-African ancestry from the past 500-1000 years.

  8. Race is a political concept, not a scientific one. Next, someone will insist that Intelligent Design is scientific. Clearly, our education systems are sadly lacking.

  9. Do they honestly think that the genetic history of African peoples over 1000’s of years conforms to the arbitrary Imperial boundaries imposed by us a couple of hundred years ago?

  10. I’m less worried with the erroneous results this test is likely to throw up, and more worried about the “keeping out undesirables” part of it. The UK’s Roma policies, just as an example, are outrageous on a lot of counts; who’s to say they couldn’t use this to deny people entry because they’re not the right kind of person? It’s happened before with less tech: I wonder how long it would take till somebody’s told they’re not getting asylum or something because of their ethnic makeup; it’s not that far-fetched, and the UK is becoming more restricted by the day, it seems.

  11. This is a clear indication that UK immigration policy is all about Race! Some one please lecture me otherwise;

    I think it will be fair for them to directly say we are trying to limit immigration (or we don’t want people) from Africa, The Middle East and Asia in our country. rather than hiding behind the disguise of non-EAA because tht makes no sense.

    I think we are moving towards a more industralized form of racisms. The type of discussion that starts with “i am not a racist, but…” Give me your DNA…your biometrics, give me your money…give me everything you have…and serve me. This is a new slavery! don’t think we are better off

  12. @ Paul

    Many brits seem to be very surprised that their country is such a popular destination for migrants (including me, originally from France). In fact, the relative lack of complex bureaucracy, the NHS, low unemployement, etc are very attractive to migrants. And once you’ve got used to the weather, this is a great place to live!

    In my opinion however, and this may come as a surprise, the most attractive aspect of the UK is how tolerant the British people are of migrants and refugees. I’m not saying that everybody welcomes you with open arms, but compared to other European countries the Brits are very open minded and it makes a huge difference.

    When I go back to France, I’m always shocked at how apallingly French citizens of North african descent are treated in everyday life: no decent job prospects, ghettos on the outskirts of cities, lack of respect for their religion…
    I have lived in Italy and Spain and it’s the same story there.

    It’s such a shame the British Agencies are acting more and more like the paranoid imbeciles of mainland Europe.

  13. The over/under on the U.S. “Birthers” demanding Pres. Obama subject himself to this “test”: 15 Days.

    — MrJM

  14. This is edge policy-making. Obviously this is unthinkable and will get everyone outraged. So when it’s struck down or they cave to public pressure, everyone will be relieved that they don’t actually live in a xenophobic police state.

    And then the Border Agency can resume the xenophobic police state methods they’ve been using all along, only now they don’t seem so bad…

  15. God, who the hell decided

    “Children of Men! Let’s just do that!”


    And #12, I agree. This is where they want to be in 10 years, they’re just seeding the idea out so it’s in people’s heads and they’re used to it.

  16. @Brainspore

    They should screen for the “witch” gene while they’re at it.

    Unnecessary. They already have the completely reliable “weighs the same as a duck” test, which has at least as much scientific validity as this.

  17. “,,,If they weigh the same as a duck,,,they’re made of wood.”

    So do they really need their DNA tested at all?

  18. Seriously, what the fuck is going on in the UK? The nonchalance with which these horribly fascists ideas are thrown about is shocking

  19. You tell ’em Gato! Nothing like that happens here in the U S A!!!

    Except for (fill in the blank with as many unconstitutional laws that have been passed here via Bush then upheld by Obama and then sprinkle with a little religiosity for good measure).

  20. Demidan:

    Ha! point taken. Yeah, stuff like that is happening all over the world, but damn, it’s particularly shocking when it comes from countries which, not much long ago, were busy fighting against exactly this sort of madness.

  21. This genetic testing is clearly necessary so that they may identify and handle appropriately those who can communicate with midichlorians, those who are able to interface with Ancient technologies and can defend the Earth from the Wraith, those who are likely to work best with Ood, and of course to bring about the Kwisatz Haderach.

    And we all know about the mandatory reparations for Ender Wiggin’s actions.

  22. There are lots of other things to dig this up for.

    However, does Godwin’s law still apply with such a weirdly Third Reichian idea?

    Utter, utter madness.

  23. I’m an American immigrant in Britain. How’s that going to work? 1/4 of me can stay because it is English. 1/4 will have to be deported to Finland, and the other 1/2 deported to Sweden?

  24. The stupidity is horrible, the racism is horrible, the anti-scientific attitude is horrible. But I think it’s the ethnic cleansing aspect that is the worst part.

  25. All the monies used for projects like these should be spent on education, so that the terribleness of this idea is more obvious to more people.

  26. I am surprised nobody has yet mentioned that the UK population is one of the most mixed in the world.

    A DNA profile of an “Englishman” will turn up most European traces so its ironic that if a test such as this could be made reliable then we would all be immigrants and there would be nobody left to turn the lights out.

    Ahh, the master plan is revealed…

    I am English and my ancestors came from the Med over 100 years ago, I don’t have a clue where there ancestors came from. From evolution, we originally all came from the same place anyway.

  27. There are ethnic Turks in China. One out of ten humans has DNA from _one_ of the Mongol Khans. Through the Roman/Persian empires, the Muslim conquests of Europe and the Crusades, Eurasian DNA is pretty mixed, as well as Northern Africa. Not to mention ‘race’ is a rather nonscientific concept.

    Besides being bad science, you are stepping into Nazi-Orwellian territory with this. Whenever this sort of genetic purity talk starts, you get to that slippery slope very quickly. The tests could be used in Darfur to determine exactly who to slaughter or deny tribal/ethnic populations rights because they are not the same genetic profile as the majority.

    Trusting any government with DNA information is a very bad idea. It lets anyone within the government look up the genetic predispositions of an individual; you can see if someone is prone to diabetes or schizophrenia and discriminate accordingly. Some businesses will bribe workers to pre-screen prospective hires to cut costs. If there is indeed a genetic marker for homosexuality, how do you keep bigots from doing the test and getting an abortion if they don’t like the results?

    Recently, scientists have been able to form DNA to match a genetic profile. It’s now possible to take the printout of a person’s DNA and use it to craft genetic material that can be planted at a crime scene. Give me enough money, I can frame King Tut and Abraham Lincoln.

    This is a very bad idea (and not because it is scientifically moronic).

  28. I’ll go out on a limb and say I don’t see what’s so wrong with what they’re doing. When I see comments like “Race is a political concept, not a scientific one”, that makes me wonder, what is everyone so afraid of? If there truly are no DNA markers for race, then this project is doomed to fail, right?

  29. @Anon above me,

    The real thing that will happen here is that the results will be essentially invented — when the science is as clearly bogus as this, the function of such a program is to preselect those who will ultimately ‘fail’

    The real giveaway here is that the swabs will only be done on those that supposedly fail “language tests” — IOW, xenophobia plain and simple.

  30. @anon 31

    DNA markers are characteristic of lineage, and can be tied statistically to the geographic areas in which that lineage arose. But with the massive population movements of the last few hundred years, saying that someones lineage is statistically linked to a geographic area is almost meaningless when trying to determine an individuals birthplace. A family that had immigrated hundreds of years ago would almost certainly still have genetic markers that tie them to the geographic region from which their ancestors emerged.

    Isotopic analysis is more individualized, as a persons body uptakes elements in isotopic ratios that are particular to the food consumed by the individual. The isotopic ratios in the food are determined by the soil in which the plants from which the food is derived grew. Theoretically this can be tied to a specific geographic location, but once again, the vast movement of goods in the modern world makes such analysis potentially very misleading. If a person regularly eats imported foods (which a great many people do without even realizing it), they will develop an isotopic profile that indicates the place the food came from, not where the person ate it.

    Additionally, to implement either of these schemes a massive database of specific genetic markers and isotopic distributions that do not yet exist would have to be compiled. For the genetic markers, it would require the voluntary cooperation of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people from around the world. In the case of the isotopic analysis, this would be a stupefyingly large database, as isotopic ratios can vary quickly over relatively small distances. While this would be of enormous use to the scientific community, the costs involved in undertaking a global analysis of isotope distributions would be enormous, while still producing only questionable results because of the issues mentioned earlier.

    Thus the general chorus of derision. It’s bad science, its bad policy, it won’t work, and it would cost a fortune.

    Other than that, it’s a great idea.

  31. “If there truly are no DNA markers for race, then this project is doomed to fail, right?”

    Yes. It is doomed to fail. It is obvious to anyone who understands the details of what they’re doing that it is doomed to fail. Scientifically speaking it cannot possibly work. It is dumb. and makes no sense from a practical standpoint.

    But they’re doing it anyway. That’s the scary part.

  32. @33

    You have given some pretty strong reasons why this technique can be valid. It can not be used as the sole reason for refusal, but the data can be collected from people over time and the techniques refined.

    It can be a tool that will get stronger and more reliable the more it’s used.

    “”to help identify a person’s true country of origin.” ”

    The types of tests they are performing doesn’t seem to have much to do with ethnicity and more to do with pollutants, diet and environment.

    From what I know of materials analysis this seems legit.

  33. You have given some pretty strong reasons why this technique can be valid. It can not be used as the sole reason for refusal, but the data can be collected from people over time and the techniques refined.

    Did you read what he said at all? It can basically be summed up like this:

    Theoretically this ‘science’ can be used to work out where someone’s ancestors came from, and possibly where there food came from.

    However even this data is highly questionable and would only become slightly less questionable by spending $$billions and having millions of people give up their DNA to go into a gigantic, fraught with problems database.

    On a connected issue, does anyone know why there seem to be so many people intent on making it to the UK?

    Every day in the Australian news paper they have stories about ‘boat people’ coming to Australia illegally and blah blah blah.

    I’d say the reason so many people are claiming asylum in the UK is that many people are claiming asylum anywhere that isn’t completely fucked.

    There’re wars going on all over Africa and in the Middle East. There’s a lot of people in Africa and the Middle East.

    I’d be interested to see if any European or Western country has less asylum seekers than say 5 years ago. I’m sure there’s a few, I bet there’s not many.

  34. @anon 35

    What itsumishi said.

    You would get as reliable a result by simply asking the person, and it would cost much less for this result of questionable reliability. By these methods, I would show up as either someone from central europe or from central america, neither of which are in fact true. But speaking as an archaeologist, by all means, spend gazillions of pounds to compile the data. It would be enormously useful, and would still get thrown out by the courts eventually.

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