From: Biniam Tekle (email@example.com)
Date: Thu Nov 05 2009 - 07:49:14 EST
Genetic tests for UK asylum seekers draw criticism
By MARIA CHENG (AP) – Nov 05, 2009
LONDON — Britain is using genetic tests on some African asylum seekers in an
effort to catch those who are lying about their nationality, drawing
criticism from scientists and provoking outrage from rights groups.
The United Kingdom Border Agency launched the pilot project in September
amid suspicions there might be a large number of asylum applicants lying
about their home countries. An agency spokesman said Britain was the only
country using genetic tests in this way.
Experts, however, say the tests are based on flawed science and there's no
way genetic swabs can provide meaningful evidence regarding nationality.
Concerned about potential fraud, the Bush administration launched a pilot
DNA testing project in 2007 to vet applicants to a program that allows
family members of African refugees already in the United States to join
The project, which wrapped up in March 2008, found an extremely high rate of
fraud — 87 percent — among applicants claiming to be related to each other,
the State Department said, and the resettlement program was suspended until
those concerns could be addressed. The U.S. does not use genetic tests to
try to prove nationality.
Authorities in Britain described the testing as voluntary and said
applicants would be asked to provide a mouth swab or hair or nail sample
only in cases where questions arise about their nationality and they would
be free to decline.
The government argues such tests can provide valuable — although not
conclusive — evidence in assessing whether or not asylum seekers are telling
the truth about their country of origin.
So far, the tests are being used only on people who claim to be from
Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan, though if successful,
officials say the plan could be rolled out further.
Several experts slammed the effort as "fundamentally flawed science," and a
petition has been sent to Prime Minister Gordon Brown calling for the
project to be dismantled.
"Genes are not aware of national borders," said Sir Alec Jeffreys, a
geneticist at the University of Leicester who developed techniques for DNA
"Nationality is a legal concept, and it's got nothing to do with genetics at
all," said Jeffreys, adding that the kind of genetic research needed to
identify ethnic origins according to DNA in Africa has never been done.
Human rights experts said the voluntary label was misleading.
"If people do not consent to this test, that could jeopardize their
application or otherwise be construed negatively," said Jill Rutter, a
spokeswoman for Refugee and Migrant Justice, a London-based legal charity
for asylum seekers and migrants.
"Refugees might not be in a position to understand what's going on and they
could be without legal representation when this request is made," Rutter
said. "It puts them in a very vulnerable position and their rights may be
Refugees may be eligible for asylum in Britain if they can prove they face
persecution at home because of their race, religion, political views, sexual
orientation, or other factors.
Last year, nearly 26,000 people applied in Britain; of the more than 19,000
cases where decisions were made, 3,725, or 19 percent, were granted asylum.
People from more repressive or chaotic countries, like Sudan or Somalia,
often have a better chance of gaining asylum than those from more stable
countries like Kenya.
In a document describing the project, the Border Agency acknowledges
"testing will only provide a clue to the person's ancestral lineage allowing
a probable identification with a particular country."
The agency had originally planned to use genetic test results as definitive
proof of nationality, but scaled that back after scientists protested. A
spokesman for the agency said results would only be used in combination with
other ways of determining an asylum seeker's nationality, such as language
analysis and interviews, and would not be used to deport anyone.
"We are only trying to establish the efficacy of this approach," said the
official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government
policy. The Border Agency expects to test about three samples a week during
the 10-month-long project.
The tests will also be used to determine if the children asylum seekers are
trying to bring into Britain are actually related to them. In addition to
the pilot program in the U.S., such testing on children has also been
conducted in France.
Besides genetic tests, British officials are also performing isotope
analysis of asylum seekers' hair and nail samples. Scientists can look at
the composition of certain elements like oxygen or strontium in hair and
nails to see where a person has been.
But these isotopes are present only so long as the hair and nails have
recently been growing, meaning such tests will only give clues into an
applicants recent whereabouts.
"I don't see how hair and nails can be used to tell you anything about
(birth) origins," said Jane Evans, an isotope expert at the National
Environment Research Council in Nottingham.
It is possible to get more precise information about a person's origins
using isotopes, but only with a bone or tooth sample, she said.
Britain has been a lightning rod of controversy in the debate over security
versus civil liberties.
It has one of the largest DNA databases in the world, with more than 5
million samples collected by authorities to help fight terrorism and crime.
In a landmark decision, the European Court of Human Rights recently ordered
Britain to destroy nearly 1 million DNA samples and fingerprints on its
database — samples taken from children, people who had never been charged or
people acquitted of crimes.
Since terror attacks in the U.S. and Britain, authorities have also used DNA
collection as an important counterterrorism tool.
DNA samples taken on battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan from
detainees and suicide bombers have provided clues about terror cell members
and how they are linked to global cells, British security officials said.
Samples taken during terror raids in Britain have also allowed investigators
to trace suspects to suspects abroad, said the officials, who spoke on
condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of their work.
Experts said that while it is legitimate for the government to try to
confirm asylum seekers' claims, it has to do that in ways compatible with
the principles of a democratic society — and with a credible test.
"Genetic testing may be able to tell you where somebody's ancestors started
out, but it doesn't tell you where they're from," said John Harris, a
professor of bioethics at Manchester University, who also sits on the
government's Human Genetics Commission.
"It won't give them anything worth knowing, and it's very likely that what
it will give them is misleading."
*Associated Press writers Paisley Dodds in London and Eileen Sullivan and
Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.*
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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