HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

UK Border Agencies Start Pilot Program Using DNA Testing to Prove the Origin of Asylum Seekers Claiming to Be From Somalia

The UK Border Agency came under attack for its proposed plan to use genetics to determine nationality. According to a report in Nature, a pilot project was implemented to confirm the claims of 100 asylum seekers that they are from war-torn Somalia. The plan calls for checking the individuals for specific mutations called SNPs (single polymorphisms) in mitochondrial DNA, the Y chromosome and elsewhere in the genome. But those geneticists contacted by Nature for their views on the merits of the plan were more than skeptical. According to one geneticist “[t]he idea that genetic variability follows national boundaries is absurd.” The article goes on to explain why:

It is true that the recent development of large SNP databases have made it possible to determine the geographic origins of Europeans to within a few hundred kilometers (see Nature 456, 98–101; 2008). But comparable data on many human populations, especially in regions such as Africa, remain patchy at best, and it is unclear what data the border agency will use to establish the origins of these particular asylum-seekers.

On a more fundamental level, the idea that genetic variability follows man-made national boundaries is absurd. Cross-border migration is common throughout the world; Y-chromosome analysis can easily be thrown off by a distant male ancestor; and SNP-based identifications are inexact to say the least. As an example of this last point, individuals whose parents come from two geographic regions are often classed into a third region from which neither parent originated.


These problems seem to be ignored in the guidelines provided to border agents testing the asylum-seekers. Given the scientific credibility of DNA evidence, it is not difficult to imagine that these agents — who are presumably not geneticists — might place undue weight on results that are, at best, difficult to interpret and, at worst, spurious.

Migration organizations and geneticists alike have been vocal in their protests against the plan, and in response the UK government seems to have backpedalled. In a statement released earlier this week from the Home Office, which runs the border agency, the program was described as only a proof-of-concept project that would not be used to make decisions about any asylum-seeker.


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