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Thursday, 19 November 2009

DNA used to decide asylum claims: what could possibly go wrong?


Bearing in mind The United Nations says Asylum seekers are not legal if they pass more than one safe country to get to their destination you could argue this story is irrelevant. However if it helps stem the third world invasion then I'm all for it.

From new scientist

A project to use DNA and isotope analysis to help evaluate the claims of asylum seekers, and decide who can enter the United Kingdom, is underway.

So says Science magazine, which obtained UK Border Agency documents showing that isotope analyses of hair and nail samples will be conducted "to help identify a person's true country of origin". A DNA-based program to identify nationality was also recently revealed by the UK newspaper The Observer.

It's not clear just what stage the project has reached, but scientists have understandably reacted with concern.
In the case of the plans for DNA testing, these would rely on mouth swabs for mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome testing - forensic techniques already used to establish links between family members, and to predict ancestry - as well as analysis of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which also tend to be associated with particular ethnic groups or geographical regions.

Science says that one goal of the project would be "to determine whether asylum-seekers claiming to be from Somalia and fleeing persecution are actually from another African country such as Kenya."

This isn't the first time that the authorities have used DNA to try and predict someone's ancestry. In 2007, a judge ordered investigators to determine whether DNA recovered from a flat used in the planning of the Madrid bombings came from people of North African or European ancestry.

Researchers are also working on ways of predicting what someone looks like from their DNA. As well as helping track down crime suspects, this could also help in disaster victim identification, where often all you're left with are some bone fragments or other charred tissue from which DNA could be extracted.

The problem with all these things is that there are always exceptions to the rule. So while a Y chromosome analysis may be very effective at identifying what the average Kenyan's DNA should look like, what about the handful of Kenyans whose parents migrated from elsewhere - either recently, or in the more distant past - and whose DNA might show a slightly different pattern?

At most, such technologies may be useful tools for generating police leads - if they are used in context and backed up by other evidence. But that's a big IF.

They also need to be subjected to thorough testing and outside scrutiny to establish their worth and the statistical weight that can be attached to them. Even then, they should never be used as the sole grounds for making life or death decisions, such as whether to convict someone of a crime, or refuse political asylum.
http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2009/09/dna-used-to-decide-asylum-clai.html

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