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UK Gov seeks 'scientific' basis for nationality

Didn't we hear that one somewhere before?

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Attempts to define race through science haven't had an entirely positive press subsequent to the collapse of the Third Reich, but the Weird Science Department of the UK Government could well be skittering on that very patch of thin ice. Lord Triesman, the Prime minister's Special Envoy for Returns, this week said that work on the "scientific and technical identification of nationality" will be "an important tool" to be used for the return of illegal immigrants to their countries of origin.

Triesman, a Foreign Office Minister, was given the Special Envoy for Returns role earlier this year. Part of the job involves persuading foreign governments to accept illegal immigrants the UK wants to send back, but the question of "identification of nationality" arises from a related aspect of the job - how do you identify and redocument an undocumented alien who won't tell you where they came from, or who's telling you lies about where they came from? It's a messy job, and frankly we're not convinced there's a whole lot of point in anybody doing it.

Aspects of the UK immigration service machine are already, as it were, measuring head size. Some attempt has been made to apply data on size and age, and x-rays and dental records, to estimate the age of asylum seekers' children. These efforts have not however been hugely successful, and nailing down nationality/race is a entirely different matter.

The precise words used by Triesman, in a Home Office announcement headed "Strengthening Britain's borders through international co-operation", were as follows:

"In my role as the PM's Special Envoy for Returns, I have been giving a new focus to this work [returning illegal immigrants] by exploring the scientific and technical options to remove the barriers to removal. With others, we are looking at the scientific and technical identification of nationality. This will be an important tool in a series of measures to improve the redocumentation and return of immigration offenders."

Asked for further details, a Home Office spokeswoman told The Register that this work "probably" involved DNA sampling, and suggested that as Triesman is a Foreign Office Minister we should apply there for more information. The Foreign Office has yet to get back to us, but an FCO source suggested that the work was at a very preliminary stage, and that it was more of a special interest of Triesman's than an FCO project, or indeed one that the Borders & Immigration Agency (formerly IND) was involved with. Given that the special envoy role is a Blair appointment, one might speculate that the relevant frothing petri dish is somewhere close to Downing Street.

Whatever it is that Triesman and "others" are up to, however, it's difficult to see how it could be anything other than a wild goose chase - "scientific" identification of nationality, in particular, is quite clearly impossible, given that nationality is not necessarily anything to do with race or ethnicity, and can be acquired and revoked. One could perhaps consider the possibly that a technical definition of nationality would be possible (via, for example, biometric identification combined with access to home government biometric records), but this doesn't seem particularly viable, particularly for the trickier undocumented alien cases that are concerning Triesman.

Back on the scientific front, the best that could conceivably be done here is the production of a probability of nationality based on DNA data, which might then be used to support other evidence indicating the origins of the mystery immigration offender. The probability would generally not be particularly high, though, and although there has been some research into the determination of ethnicity via DNA, it has yet to produce convincing results, and arguably never will.

The UK has one of the world's more extensive DNA databases, and the UK police are certainly interested in being able to get a clearer picture of a suspect from DNA. DNA has been successfully used for familial searches, but a 2004 bid to trace a suspect all the way to a particular Caribbean island was based almost entirely on hope, not science, as Genewatch's 2005 report on The Police National DNA Database explains (see page 34).

Genewatch also identifies (see section 7.2) a number of difficulties faced in attempting to predict ethnicity from DNA. It's conceivable that specific DNA sequences related to ethnicity could be identified, but it may well be that the overlap between populations is so great that this will get you no further than the four historical populations of East Asian, European, Native American and African. Which would not be a great deal of help to Lord Triesman.

An alternative approach is to look for a statistical relationship between DNA profiles and ethnicity, but difficulties are likely to arise here if the current UK database were to be used for this. The profiles in the database are based on DNA sequences (STRs, Short Tandem Repeats) that do not in themselves have anything to do with appearance or ancestral original, and if no fixed relationship between the frequency of these and appearance/ethnicity can be found, they're of doubtful use for this class of identification. Nor does the DNA database's record of ethnicity or appearance necessarily have any biological validity, given that it's frequently based on the best guess of the police.

So even before we get as far as trying to relate ethnicity to nationality, "scientific" identification looks highly improbable. The ethnicity/nationality question itself, meanwhile, will tend to be magnified by the very nature of Triesman's undocumented 'problem'. How do you tell whether an asylum seeker is from Sudan, Somalia, or Kenya, for example? Or if an undocumented individual of Chinese appearance is from China or any one of several countries in South East Asia? The chances of identifying clear DNA differences are negligible, but these are precisely the questions immigration officers have to consider regularly when dealing with undocumented "offenders". ®

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