Bad science?

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.

Related links

Medical Justice Network

National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

Comments

October 9, 2009
Frances Pilling:

Thank goodness this disgraceful project has been shelved, and lets hope it never sees the light of day again. I agree with Frances completely (and not just because we share the same name)

January 9, 2012
Dave Garratt, Chief Executive Refugee Action:

Frances Congratulations on a well thought out article – there was much in it that rings depressingly true. Inevitably I disagree with your comments about RA’s involvement in voluntary return. I don’t want to get in to a detailed public argument about it, but I do need to clarify a few of the things you’ve said: 1)RA does not ‘actively encourage’ anybody to take up voluntary return, we give confidential, non-directive and impartial advice to people who have a complex, restricted and difficult decision to make. Crucially, we support people to make their decisions, we do not influence or push people towards a particular course of action. 2)Being able to give this impartial advice is one of the fundamental reasons for being involved in the programme. I wish people didn’t have this decision to make. I wish it wasn’t, for all the reasons you give, such a restricted decision – but it is a decision, and a difficult one – which is why we at RA believe so passionately that people should be able to receive information and advice around it. 3) I also wish it were true that ‘lawyers advise on the options, the pros and cons’ but we both know that, in this area, they don’t. The experience of our many thousands of clients a year is mainly one of receiving no or poor quality legal advice (for all the ‘legal aid funding’ reasons you outline). Even where good legal advice is present, it cannot cover the detailed, specialised and often long term advice people need around voluntary return – put simply, legal advice for asylum seekers is, rightly, about protection issues, our voluntary return advice is about giving the holistic and wide-ranging advice people need to decide whether voluntary return is in their best interest. Far from trying to provide a nosegay then, we at RA would say that it is precisely because the reality facing our clients stinks so much, especially at point of final asylum refusal, that it is important that organisations like ours strive to support and advise them through it. In this context then, I simply disagree that our contract to provide voluntary return services means RA is ‘acting to legitimise and to enforce Home Office policy.’ However, clearly this debate, and indeed the issues raised in the IPPR report are more complex than I’ve outlined here. If you’d like to discuss these in person, I’d be more than happy to meet up, my office number is 0203 176 2511. Dave Garratt CEO Refugee Action

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