Has anyone notice how little comment has made its way into the mainstream media about the UK Borders Agency's bizarre 'Human Prevalence Pilot Project', a sort of modern day version of phrenology? The plan for the 'pilot scheme' is to take "forensic samples provided on a voluntary basis from those suspected of abusing the asylum system". The initial target seems to be Kenyans 'passing themselves off as Somalis'.
According to the Guardian, "At first it will be used only on those who fail language analysis testing, which has been used for years to determine the country of origin, but is open to legal dispute." The article went on to quote Sandy Buchan, of Refugee Action: "Many of those who seek asylum are two or even three generations removed from the country of origin of their parents and grandparents, and are fleeing areas other than the nation of their birth. A Zimbabwean farmer fleeing persecution may possess the DNA of British relatives; would they be denied asylum on that basis?"
Nobody it seems in the UK, apart from the Institute of Race Relations, seems to have picked up on the story. The IRR claim the scheme "involves UKBA staff taking samples of hair and nails - on a purely voluntary basis" according to the UKBA, to test the isotope configuration of the tissue, presumably to test against some 'standard' set of isotope signatures to identify the country the person was born or grew up in. Additionally, "staff will be seeking mitochondrial (mtDNA) 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. Now part of that is understandable, despite the continued misuse of the probability calculations involved in DNA fingerprinting during criminal trials, DNA parental analysis is fairly straight forward. It is the DNA analysis of the non-related children and the analysis of the adult samples for mtDNA and Y chromosomal DNA that is the big problem.
The bottom line is that DNA does not respect borders and can show absolutely nothing about what passport one does or doesn't carry. On top of that the basic science is extremely floored and it has taken an American science blog, Science Indsider,* to examine it and blow the UKBA's scientists assumptions out of the water. This prompted a large number of scientist from around the world to also post comments on the site supporting the negative take on the UKBA science.
On the isotope analysis Professor James R. Ehleringer od Utah University, an expert in such analysis commented: "Hydrogen and oxygen isotopes of hair reveal recent regional geographic patterns. Assuming that hair grows at about 1 cm per month, a 10-cm hair length might record the last 10 months of that person's travel…this 10-month period is not necessarily synonymous with where that person may have originated from."
Mark Thomas, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Genetic Anthropology at University College London also commented on the mtDAN analysis: "This is horrifying. mtDNA will never have the resolution to specify a country of origin. Many DNA ancestry testing companies have sprung up over the last 10 years, often based on mtDNA, but what they are selling is little better than genetic astrology."
Interestingly, the UKBA's own analysis of their case, 'Nationality Swapping - Isotope Analysis And DNA Testing', includes the 2001 murder case of the 'Adam torso' as part of their proof. The UKBA claims that through the use of isotope analysis, “the child’s body was traced to a small Nigerian town in an area about 100 x 50 km wide.” Yet the analysis was done on bones (as the UKBA document admits), not hair and teeth, which is "like adding 2 and 2 and getting 3 ½,” according to Dr Jessica A Pearson, Lecturer in Bioarchaeology at the University of Liverpool, who uses isotope signatures from fossils to examine the diet of ancient humans. She also points out that the forensic methods used in the Adam Torso case are impossible to evaluate because they still haven’t been described in any scientific publication.
Another interesting side note to this is that the French government, who were considering bringing in simple familial DNA analysis (and had in fact adopted the legal provisions for it) but Eric Besson decided to drop the idea early in September as French consulates "were not staffed with doctors" and that the controversy had already "harmed France's image abroad". Now this the British paper did cover, though it has to be said again that it was only in the guise of our old friend Peter Allen (he definitely seems to have it in for those 'damned fuzzy wuzzies') in the Telegraph and Mail.
* We are limited in space to go too deeply into a fuller account of the science involved and suggest that you read the relevant articles for that and an expanded dissection of the UKBA's 'voodoo science'.
** And the follow up article 'U.K. Border Agency Docs and Expanded Reactions'.