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UK Border Agency suspends 'flawed' asylum DNA testing

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The UK Border Agency has quietly suspended its heavily-criticised attempt to test asylum seekers' nationality by DNA fingerprinting and isotope analysis.

Officials have been told that the "Human Provenance Pilot", described as "naive and scientifically flawed" by Sir Alec Jeffreys, the inventor of DNA fingerprinting, has been "temporarily suspended".

"Officers will be notified when the process resumes," a brief UK Border Agency memo says.

The programme aimed to test African asylum seekers' nationality claims by scrutinising their ancestry and chemical make-up.

The Home Office, responsible for the UK Border Agency, said "nationality swapping is often used by fraudulent asylum seekers to help prevent their removal". In particular, according to the now-withdrawn instruction to officials, other nationalities falsely claim to be Somali in the hope the bloodshed there will help their case.

As soon as news of the pilot emerged in late September, however, the scientific community railed against what Jeffreys called "huge and unwarranted assumptions about population structure in Africa".

Professor Mark Thomas, a geneticist at University College London, said mitochondrial DNA, which the pilot was partially based on, was completely useless for determining nationality. "You'd be better off looking at the colour of their shoes," he told The Register.

There is some evidence the methods used by the UK Border Agency can determine regional ancestry in Europe, Thomas said, but very little support for it in Africa.

He cited a large population of cultural Somalis who have lived in Ethiopia for generations as an example of the type of cross-border genetic mixing no DNA testing could pick up. At best the techniques could offer "some idea of whereabouts on the continent a person's ancestors were from".

Isotope testing is equally unproven, he added, concluding, "what I would like to know is which scientists told them to do this!".

The Home Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suspension of the pilot today. ®

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