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UK Border Agency flip-flops on asylum seeker DNA tests

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After it "temporarily suspended" its controversial nationality DNA testing pilot, the UK Border Agency has today changed its stance again, saying the programme will go ahead, but the results won't be used to decide asylum seekers' fate.

DNA fingerprints and isotope analysis will be collected from asylum seekers, but "they will not be used for evidential purposes on individual cases", a Home Office spokeswoman told The Register.

The "Human Provenance Pilot" aims to use ancestry and the chemical composition of asylum seekers' bodies to help determine their nationality. It aimed in particular to address the problem of African immigrants falsely claiming to come from conflict-ravaged Somalia; a ruse known as "nationality swapping".

Originally, those applying for asylum were to be told that refusal to submit to the tests "undermines your claim to be a refugee". The spokeswoman said UKBA was working on new instructions that will not include such threats.

"We have always been clear that this is a pilot programme and as such we keep its terms of reference under review," UKBA said.

"We continuously look at new and improved ways to ensure that we can ascertain the correct identity and nationality from every asylum seeker.

"There was never any suggestion that these tests would be used in an isolated or conclusive way and we will carry out a full review of the pilot before it is rolled out."

The Human Provenance Pilot has provoked heavy criticism from the scientific community.

A memo announcing its temporary suspension, for an indeterminite period, was posted to the UKBA website late last week and highlighted by The Register. Scientists welcomed the move, but the text was altered soon after.

It now states: "Alterations have been made to the nationality swapping – Isotope analysis and DNA testing process. This process continues to operate.

"The present instruction has been withdrawn whilst amendments are made."

The Home Office spokeswoman said today the previous memo had been replaced because it was unclear*.

News the pilot is going ahead will provoke further consternation from geneticists. An editorial in Nature, published before UKBA posted its "temporary suspension" order, condemns it as "scientifically flawed, ethically dubious and potentially damaging to science". ®

*Thanks to Action on Rights for Children for spotting the change to the memo following our story.

The original memo said: "The nationality swapping – Isotope analysis and DNA testing process has been has been temporarily suspended and the instruction withdrawn. Officers will be notified when the process resumes."

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