DNA testing to assess nationality of UK asylum seekers

30 September 2009

The UK Border Agency has reportedly launched a new Human Provenance pilot project intended to use genetic testing as an additional element to other forensic techniques used to determine the true nationalities of asylum seekers (see Observer news article). The project is initially testing samples provided on a voluntary basis by asylum seekers from Africa who have failed linguistic tests and are suspected of claiming false nationality – for example, Kenyans who claim to be Somalis fleeing persecution – but could be extended to other nationalities if deemed successful. 

The pilot will use mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome testing, as well as single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) analysis in an attempt to help determine the true nationality of applicants. However, the plans have attracted serious criticism about the scientific basis for this application of genetic testing. The Border Agency has reportedly released a written response saying: “This project is working with a number of leading scientists in this field who have studied differences in the genetic backgrounds of various population groups” (see ScienceInsider article), although these scientists are not identified. 

Other leading scientists say that using genetic data to attempt to determine nationality in this manner is flawed; Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys of the University of Leicester (who invented the forensic DNA fingerprinting technique) told Science that it was “wildly premature, even ignoring the moral and ethical aspects”, also pointing out that even were sufficient research evidence on the ability of DNA testing to identify ethnic origin from that region available, genetic indications of ethnicity would still not establish nationality.

Although many companies now offer genealogical or ancestry DNA testing services, their utility is highly questionable; they typically use 'methods that were developed for the study of human populations rather than individuals' (see Information on genetic ancestry testing). The concern is that asylum seekers will feel compelled to provide DNA samples for analysis and that the results may be inappropriately interpreted when officials attempt to use them in deciding on nationality.

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