Border DNA, Moral Quandary

A version of this article was published by Singularity Hub in 2010

A new U.K. proposal suggests that genetics could one day be used to shape the world. In 2009, the U.K. Border Agency (UKBA) unveiled a program that would genetically test East African asylum seekers in order to prove their country of origin.

Photo: Pasieka/Science Photo Library/Corbis

The agency, responsible for securing the border and controlling migration in the U.K., claims that falsifying nationality is a problem for East Africans. But can genetics define nationality, especially in a region where whole populations are on the move? As protest mounts, it’s increasingly clear that using DNA to track one’s origin is more trouble than it’s worth.

The Human Provenance Pilot Project was designed to test forensic samples voluntarily given by asylum seekers who failed language analysis testing. Mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA would be tested, as would single-nucleotide polymorphisms (single-base variations along the DNA strand). Subjects would also have isotopes in hair and fingernails tested—a method used for otherwise unidentifiable murder victims.

The project is meant to validate claims of nationality by Somalis, Kenyans and citizens of other war-ravaged countries who travel to the U.K. seeking asylum. Refugee status, security risk, health and family status are all taken into account when interviewing asylum seekers. While genes answer questions of ancestry, using genetic tests to determine asylum status is problematic at best.

Regulating according to DNA seems unethical not to mention insufficient for determining nationality. For starters, genes don’t relate to political borders. There are strong doubts as to whether testing this particular group can provide even the slightest statistical reliability, mainly because of past and present population movements throughout the region. As scientists contend, people move. And although mitochondrial DNA gives some answers as to where a person has been in their life, the error-prone results are indeterminate on a local scale.

As specialists point out, there is nothing that says isotope signatures at birth or during childhood are the same as those in adult samples, further complicating reliability. Growing tissues like hair and nails may only reveal the past year of someone’s life. Also, scientists can’t confirm if notable differences in isotope signatures between neighboring countries exist, if only for the fact that countries sometimes share similar climate and environmental conditions.

Putting nationality and genetics in the same category for identification purposes—in effect, combining a person’s nationality with their ancestry—raises ethical concerns. So many, that the UKBA announced late last year it would scale back the project, following fierce protest from scientists and migrant advocates. The signatures of nearly 200 scientists were collected on a petition that describes the Human Provenance Pilot Project as ‘flawed’ and ‘naïve,’ and a number of activists have come forward in the media.

In response, the UKBA revised its stance on the issue. The agency’s new voluntary proof of concept project, which runs through this month, will determine the potential for the investigations to warrant a broader use of DNA testing and isotope analysis. Following a round of efficacy and ethics reviews, the techniques will undergo further review by the Home Office Forensic Science Regulator. This all needs to happen before techniques are considered for asylum investigations. The original plan, which directed Border Agency officials to use test results in interviews with asylum seekers, and to make asylum decisions, was a clear contradiction.

We may someday have the technology to accurately determine nationality by testing DNA. And what then? Will we use the information to track diseases, viruses or other population-specific scientific and medical phenomena? Will we use it for historical purposes? The uncertainty of whether this new information will be used constructively or for discrimination, is likely what concerns immigrant advocates the most. Right now, it’s more a question of privacy.

Using DNA to track populations and ancestry isn’t new, but regulating according to DNA raises a moral quandary. If and when we adopt methods to track nationality with genes, the government keeping tabs on our DNA could be the least of our worries.


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