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Home Office declines to detail DNA-for-foreigns trial

Recognised forensic techniques... that we just made up in our heads

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Home Office experiments with various DNA and isotope tests to try and "prove" an individual's nationality are a bogus use of bogus science, scientists have said.

Several scientists, including DNA fingerprinting boffin Alec Jeffreys, have told the Home Office that its trial of mitochondrial DNA tests on asylum seekers is "wildly premature".

The UK Borders Agency began its "Human Provenance Pilot" in mid-September and will run it until June 2010. A spokeswoman stressed that the programme would look not just at mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) but also "language analysis, interview techniques and other recognised forensic techniques". The scheme is aimed at asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa. The Agency has had problems with asylum seekers from the region claiming wrongly to be from Somalia.

But there remain questions over exactly what techniques are being used and how effective they are. Isotope testing, for instance, does a good job of telling you in which region corpses spent their early years, but are less good at specifying on which side of a national boundary someone was born or brought up.

Jeffreys told Science Magazine: “The Borders Agency is clearly making huge and unwarranted assumptions about population structure in Africa; the extensive research needed to determine population structure and the ability or otherwise of DNA to pinpoint ethnic origin in this region simply has not been done. Even if it did work (which I doubt), assigning a person to a population does not establish nationality - people move! The whole proposal is naive and scientifically flawed.”

Mark Thomas, a geneticist at University College London, described the scheme as "horrifying". He said that working out a person's ancestry, never mind nationality, from mtDNA was difficult enough and that many companies which claimed to offer such services were peddling junk.

Thomas said: "mtDNA will never have the resolution to specify a country of origin. Many DNA ancestry testing companies have sprung up over the last 10 years, often based on mtDNA, but what they are selling is little better than genetic astrology. Dense genomic SNP data does have some resolution… but not at a very local scale, and with considerable errors.”

The use of isotope testing is even more controversial, with many researchers disputing how far isotope testing can show where people originate from. Observers questioned why the procurement document refers to the "Adam Torso" case - where the body of a teenager found in the Thames was eventually traced back to a small area of Nigeria. But that relied on bone samples rather than teeth and hair, and many of the techniques remain unknown because they were not peer-reviewed or tested in court.

The Home Office declined to offer any further details on the trial or explain which labs are being used - some scientists have questioned the independence and statistical skills of the private labs presumably doing the work.

They did send us the following statement:

Nationality swapping is often used by fraudulent asylum seekers to help prevent their removal. That is why we are continuously looking at new and improved ways to ensure that we can ascertain the correct identity and nationality from every asylum seeker. This pilot scheme will use DNA testing to build up a clearer picture of where a person originates from. This will enable the UK Border Agency to make further enquiries, including language analysis and face to face interviews, to indicate the possible origin of an individual and help successfully return them to their true country more quickly.

Home Office relying on junk science? Surely not. ®

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