LONDON: Britain is using genetic tests on some African asylum seekers in an effort to catch those who are lying about their nationality, drawing criticism from scientists and provoking outrage from rights groups. The United Kingdom Border Agency launched the pilot project in September amid suspicions there might be a large number of asylum applicants lying about their home countries. An agency spokesman said Britain was the only country using genetic tests in this way.
Experts, however, say the tests are based on flawed science and there’s no way genetic swabs can provide meaningful evidence regarding nationality. Concerned about potential fraud, the Bush administration launched a pilot DNA testing project in 2007 to vet applicants to a program that allows family members of African refugees already in the United States to join them.
The project, which wrapped up in March 2008, found an extremely high rate of fraud — 87% — among applicants claiming to be related to each other, the State Department said, and the resettlement program was suspended until those concerns could be addressed. The US does not use genetic tests to try to prove nationality.
Authorities in Britain described the testing as voluntary and said applicants would be asked to provide a mouth swab or hair or nail sample only in cases where questions arise about their nationality and they would be free to decline.
The government argues such tests can provide valuable — although not conclusive — evidence in assessing whether or not asylum seekers are telling the truth about their country of origin.
So far, the tests are being used only on people who claim to be from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan, though if successful, officials say the plan could be rolled out further.
Several experts slammed the effort as “fundamentally flawed science”, and a petition has been sent to PM Gordon Brown calling for the project to be dismantled. “Genes are not aware of national borders,” said Alec Jeffreys, a geneticist at the University of Leicester who developed techniques for DNA fingerprinting. “Nationality is a legal concept, and it’s got nothing to do with genetics at all,” said Jeffreys.