Scientists in the United Kingdom are outraged over a new program that seeks to determine asylum seekers’ nationalities through DNA and the isotopes present in their hair and fingernails. “Horrifying,” “naïve,” and “flawed” are among the adjectives geneticists and isotope specialists have used to describe the “Human Provenance pilot project,” launched quietly in mid-September by the U.K. Border Agency [Science Insider]. The experts say the tests simply aren’t accurate enough to pinpoint a person’s country of origin.
The program will be tried out on asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa, and will seek to establish whether applicants from Kenya or Ethiopia are masquerading as refugees from war-torn Somalia. 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” [Science Insider].
In the second part of the testing, 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. 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. “For example, you can’t necessarily tell the difference between a Frenchman or a German. They can be used on a regional or continental level, but they don’t relate to a political boundary” [BBC News].
The UK Border Agency maintains that the program will be useful first step in determining an applicant’s true nationality, and says the biological tests will be followed up by in-person interviews and language analysis tests.
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