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