September 24, 2009 — Comment
Written by Frances Webber
The UK Border Agency is trialing a controversial isotope analysis to determine nationality.
The UK Border Agency (UKBA) plans to test people’s nationality by isotope analysis, according to an announcement made on 11 September by the Central Operations and Performance directorate. The ‘Human Provenance Pilot Project’, scheduled to run for ten months from 14 September 2009, involves UKBA staff taking samples of hair and nails – on a purely voluntary basis, the note assures us – from persons believed to be making false claims about their nationality when claiming asylum. The samples allow testing of the isotope configuration stored in a person’s body. Additionally, staff will be seeking mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA.
Mouth swabs will also be used to test whether children brought in by an asylum claimant are the asylum seeker’s children or unrelated.
Isotope analysis has been used to find out where someone has been, since hair and nails retain vestiges of food and water which are traceable to specific places. But it would give a very unreliable indication of nationality. Similarly, DNA testing has been used to establish ethnicity. But nationality is a legal, not a biological category. To use biological tests to establish a juridical category is inherently flawed.
The UKBA claims that the DNA they will take is different from ‘ordinary’ DNA used in criminal investigations, and cannot be used for this purpose by mouth swabs, which will not yield a specific identity but will give an indication of the person’s nationality, allowing other investigations to be made, but this seems disingenuous, since ‘ordinary’ DNA can be taken from the samples.
The use of science to enforce legal distinctions between people has a bad history. Apart from the inevitable echoes of eugenics, Nazis and apartheid, in Britain, the imposition of virginity testing on wives from the Indian subcontinent in the late 1970s led to picketing of Heathrow airport, and the use of X-rays to determine children’s ages was discredited as dangerous as well as unreliable.
True, volunteering a strand of hair or a snip of fingernail or a spit of saliva is obviously not as degrading as virginity tests nor as physically dangerous as X-raying children. And DNA testing is now routinely used by applicants to prove that the children they are seeking to bring in to the country are their own. But the voluntary nature of submission is questionable: As with ID cards, refusal to cooperate is bound to lead to enhanced suspicion and refusal of the application.
Quite apart from the commonplace indignity of never simply being believed, of always being forced to prove the obvious, the danger of these tests lies in their incapacity to establish precisely the fact that is being tested, which, as previously mentioned, is a legal, not a biological category. Many British citizens, born and bred in far-flung corners of the world, would ‘fail’ a human provenance test. Many Somalis have long resided in Kenya, Ethiopia and other east African countries: would their provenance be ‘proved’ as Kenyan or Ethiopian? Isotope analysis has been used in archaeology, to establish the regions where people lived, and in recent criminal investigation, to trace a murder victim’s movements around the world. But to extend its use to seek to establish nationality, to use it in such a contentious area where the price of error is possibly death, is surely unacceptable.
If there are studies of the reliability and efficacy of isotope analysis in this area, UKBA should publish them before proceeding. It is indefensible to announce such a dangerous and contentious project at only three days’ notice.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.