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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Can DNA Stop Asylum Fraud?

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> The United Kingdom isexperimenting with genetic testing as a method for reducing asylum fraud.  According to the UK Border Agency, falsifying nationality to gain political asylum has been a particular problem among East Africans (I recently discussed this problem here).  In response, the UKBA attempted to implement a program to genetically test East African asylum seekers to determine their country of origin.  The 2009 program was much criticized by scientists and immigrant advocates, and the British government ultimatelyshelved the plan.  However, the UK is continuing a smaller scale "proof of concept" project that is scheduled to finish up this month.  According to the UKBA: 

Participation in the project will be entirely voluntary, and will test whether there is the potential for these investigations to be supported by wider use of DNA testing and isotope analysis. Whilst this trial is being undertaken, no decisions on individual cases will be made using these techniques, and they will not be used for evidential purposes.

At the end of the project, the UKBA will evaluate the efficacy and ethics of the project and determine whether the technique could be used to augment its decision-making process in asylum cases. 

A UKBA scientist tests for Somali nationality.

The main objection to the project seems to be that it conflates nationality with ancestry.  A Somali citizen, for example, may be of Ethiopian ancestry.  The science website Singularity Hub reports:

[G]enes don't relate to political borders. And there are strong doubts as to whether testing this particular group can even provide the slightest statistical reliability, mainly because of past and present population movements throughout the region.

Current TV reports on a second part of the test:

[An] applicant will be asked to give hair and fingernail samples; by looking at which forms of certain elements the samples contain, the government scientists hope to find evidence of the person's diet and environment [to determine the country of origin]. But isotope specialist Tamsin O'Connell says the results won't be specific enough to be meaningful. "It is very difficult to identify individuals to very specific locations using isotopes alone," she said.

In other words, whether or not genetics and isotope analysis can be used to determine nationality is a dubious presumption.  Further, using genetic testing in this way raises ethical issues.  Current TV reports that geneticists and isotope specialists have referred to the project as "horrifying," "naïve," and "flawed."

Writing for the Singularity Hub, Christopher de la Torre imagines a time when genetic testing might be able to identify a person's country of origin: 

Using DNA to track populations and ancestry isn't new, but regulating according to DNA opens a Pandora's box of potential. As the rate of technological progress grows exponentially, it's more important than ever to balance our ability with morality.


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