October 01, 2009

DNA tests for asylum seekers

ScienceInsider has some reactions to plans from the UK Border Agency to use DNA tests to verify claims of asylum seekers that they do in fact come from the countries they claim (e.g., Somalia), rather than other ones which do not face the same geopolitical turmoil. This is a real problem for European countries, as many illegal immigrants without documents claim to be from war-zones.

I am completely in agreement with the use of DNA tests to substantiate asylum seekers' claims, with the caveat that the followed protocols should be transparent to the scientific community, so that they can be subjected to scrutiny. Right now, many DNA testing companies make bold assertions of being able to distinguish one ethnicity from another, but given that their methods are "closed box", their results are suspect.

However, it is completely inaccurate that DNA is unrelated to ethnicity. Both simple uniparental tests (Y chromosome and mtDNA), and of course autosomal panels, are useful in updating (via Bayes' rule) one's prior belief in a particular hypothesis.

A combination of linguistic assessment (whether someone knows the language of the country he claims to be form), tests of common knowledge (whether someone knows some simple facts about that country), and a DNA test (whether someone has DNA that is common in this country) is enough to determine whether someone is from some claimed origin.

Such determinations are never foolproof, but there really is no foolproof method of determining that a person with no papers is in fact what he says he is. However, they can, in fact, both statistically confirm or reject a great number of cases with very high probability of being right. This, in itself, is a great improvement.

27 comments:

  1. I just wanted to note that I don't believe the ScienceInsider stories deny that DNA has any relation to ethnicity, so I hope you were making a general comment about that premise being inaccurate. I think there can be a useful debate about the utility of these tests if done in an open manner, but the HomeOffice/Border Agency are keeping it in the dark.
    --john travis, Science magazine

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  2. I do believe that some of the comments from the quoted geneticists are misleading, e.g., "Nationality is not genetic" or "that DNA can (at best) provide evidence about deep geographical ancestry, and not about nationality."

    Such statements may be true for countries with populations of diverse origins that grant citizenship on a principle of jus soli, but it is not generally true.

    It may be impossible to determine whether someone is a US/UK citizen by a blood test, as US/UK citizens are from all over the world, but then, US/UK citizens are not the ones who apply for asylum in Europe.

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  3. Dienekes,

    It is still very limited. Do people know enough about Africa's DNA or Asia's? Is it possible to pinpoint if someone is from Afghanistan or Pakistan based on DNA? Or Togo versus Benin?

    Imagine a bloke from Togo. He speaks to the authorities in English with an African French accent. He speaks Ewe, but he does not reveal this and anyway: Ewes are spread all around several countries. He says he comes from Nigeria but Nigeria denies this, even Togo denies it.

    I don't think we are much better with the hints we get now than with our trained eyes. I (and many other persons) can recognize people from Georgia or Burma just because I happen to know many people from those regions.

    Remember: most refugees come precisely from countries that did not exist 70 years ago.

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  4. Kepler, I don't share your pessimism. For example the recent study on African DNA by Tishkoff et al. revealed 12 distinct clusters within Africa. It may not be possible right now to distinguish nationality from DNA, but we can certainly exclude some nationalities with very high probability from DNA.

    A few weeks ago there was a story in the Greek press about a Moroccan who pretended to be an Iraqi in his asylum application. If that person was given a simple Y-chromosome test and discovered to be E-M81, you are already casting doubt on his claim that he was an Iraqi. It's not foolproof, but it is certainly one additional piece of evidence that carries substantial weight.

    The current situation is completely unacceptable as some European countries are completely lax and others completely strict in dealing with asylum applications.

    http://i38.tinypic.com/bf48xx.jpg

    It is better to move towards a system where asylum decisions can be taken with more information, and with as many objective criteria as possible.

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  5. I agree with Kepler. Our eyes are designed as origin tests. DNA might give you more resolution, but the risk of misinterpretation is far more than I'd feel comfortable with.

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  6. It's impossible to pick apart someone from Niger (where human rights are horrible) from someone from Mali (where is not that bad) or someone from Senegal (a stable democracy) based on mere DNA tests. Even in the Somali case there would be huge room for doubt.

    And you know that, Dienekes: there is no way to do that in a meaningful way. That a haplogroup or whatever other genetic signature is more frequent in country A than in country B does not mean that someone having it does not come from the latter.

    That someone knowledgeable on genetics supports such absurd scheme beats me. No matter how conservative or anti-immigration one can be, this idea has no scientific grounds. You know that perfectly well.

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  7. Such statements may be true for countries with populations of diverse origins that grant citizenship on a principle of jus soli, but it is not generally true.

    It may be impossible to determine whether someone is a US/UK citizen by a blood test, as US/UK citizens are from all over the world
    ...

    Again absurd. Germany does not have ius solis and you can't determine whether someone is German by any genetic test, not even if someone is 100% pureblood German in a genealogical sense. At best you can get a likelihood but that's not any valid judicial evidence.

    We are not talking paternity tests here but determining once place of origin by mere genetic tests when haplogroups or genes in general clearly know no borders we can easily discern, much less arbitrary political borders created some 50 years ago out of the blue, cutting through the middle of historical ethnicities, as is the case with most African states.

    So what's the deal? If I'm a refugee from Niger but happen to have a haplogroup that is more common in Senegal, my claim would be rejected on a mere genetic hunch? Or if I happen to be an immigrant from Sudan and happen to have a haplogroup common in Europe, like R1b, would they give me the EU passport? Weird!

    This is the dark side of genetics, the same that Hitler's madness was the dark side of anthropometry. It's pimping a legitimate science into the worst of corruptions and, besides, asking from it what it cannot really deliver.

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  8. Besides: Are you going to test mtDNA, Y haplogroup and autosomal markers?
    Where is the border?
    What is the advantage to the current procedures?
    Who is going to do that?

    What if someone is from Rabat but happens to have male haplogroup J2? He becomes Iraqi?

    I tell you: in the case of the Moroccan it is probably easier to ask him a couple of questions about Iraq or make him answer to a recorded question in Iraqi Arabic than doing a comprehensive test.

    And Maju is right: Adolf wollte schon etwas ähnliches.

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  9. Maju and Kepler make very good points. The more one thinks about this, the worse an idea it seems to be.

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  10. At best you can get a likelihood but that's not any valid judicial evidence.


    At best you can get a likelihood no matter what line of evidence you pursue. People learn foreign languages; they live in foreign cultures and learn trivia about them without becoming citizens; they may be part of small minorities being citizens in other countries with different genetic profiles. And so on.

    Life is probability. DNA, like language, like general knowledge, like appearance help us tilt our appraisal of a case either for or against a certain hypothesis.

    We sure as hell can't accept all asylum seekers' claims if the totality of evidence argues against their story. Decisions must be made based on probabilities: quantitative (e.g., DNA) tests and expert assessments. None of them are perfect and there may be false positives/negatives. But, that's life.

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  11. Another point: this reminds me of the debacle created by certain countries requiring blood tests to prove relation before allowing men to reunite their families in asylum. The policy seems to completely disregard the reality that in certain places (usually the kind of places that would lead you to seek asylum in the first place) circumstances are such that a great many women don't have a lot of choice in the paternal genetic contribution of their children. To block asylum based on genetic endowment seems, at best, willfully ignorant of reality, and at worst, plain f*cking evil.

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  12. To block asylum based on genetic endowment seems, at best, willfully ignorant of reality, and at worst, plain f*cking evil.

    In a world of finite resources, there is no room to satisfy all claims. There are millions upon millions of Third World people who would be willing to settle in Europe and apply for asylum. Without a screening process utilizing all the available evidence, we are either forced to (i) accept all of them at enormous financial cost, (ii) reject all the ones who can't document their story, at enormous human cost, or (iii) accept/reject some randomly, i.e., make a mediocre use of resources, or (iv) use all the available evidence to help the ones most likely to be in need of help.

    But, by all means, "humanitarians" around the world, including many wealthy non-European nations that accept zero asylum seekers are welcome to get their share of people if they think they are not treated fairly in Europe.

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  13. About 1 million of persons(all refugees) from Asia and Africa settle in Europe each year. This is an insult to every country around Europe.
    For instance: if Spain receives an Ygbo that cross Morocco, it´s like saying that Christians are not safe among Muslims (we know that Islã is tolerant); a Negro is not safe among Arab-Berbers (Islã is not racist); and what excuse Italians should give to Libya when they receive a Fur?- Is not Kadafy the King of Africans? Please, Moroccans, Libyans, Egyptians,Turkish, etc.. will take care of them. We don´t need DNA to see that are not from here; or that a Hutu cross six safe countries before arrive in Belgium...

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  14. At best you can get a likelihood no matter what line of evidence you pursue.

    No. Judicial decisions to have any legitimacy must be based on evidence beyond reasonable doubt. And there's always more than just reasonable doubt in any genetic test claiming to be able to discern a German from a Pole... or a Senegalese from a Liberian.

    It's the most absurd and truly criminal thing I've read in a long time.

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  15. Judicial decisions to have any legitimacy must be based on evidence beyond reasonable doubt.

    This is not a decision whether someone is guilty of a crime and should be punished for it, but an assessment on whether they are from a certain country or not. Besides, reasonable doubt is different from no doubt, hence there is no problem in deciding cases based on probability rather than certainty.

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  16. Genetic outliers are by definition rare, but they certainly exist.

    Dienekes is ignoring the difference between being able to make a statistically significant statements, and how laws work with real individuals leading real lives.

    We would not sentence a person to life imprisonment based only upon the fact that they exhibit a high level of statistical indicators (socio economic, genetic whatever you like) that they could potentially be a murderer, and nobody would even consider such a thing although enormous amounts of such statistics exist. Somebody actually needs to make an accusation based on the individual (not his relatives, or cousins or people like him in any way) and have a good reason for doing so.

    Of course there have historically been regimes which have judged people en masse and not based on real accusations against specific individuals. I believe these experiences demonstrate the problems involved.

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  17. Dienekes is ignoring the difference between being able to make a statistically significant statements, and how laws work with real individuals leading real lives.


    Are you suggesting that Europe should grant asylum to everyone seeking asylum, because the evidence (DNA, otherwise, or combined) is never enough to 100% falsify their story?

    What way do you suggest for screening asylum seekers? And why shouldn't DNA, which does convey important information about a person's national origin be excluded from the arsenal of methods used to perform this screening?

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  18. What I think everybody is suggesting is that such issues should not be decided on the grounds of genetic tests that offer no valid extra information, much less anything that can be used as evidence in one sense or another. That such tests have no legal validity because they cannot discern anything of use.

    It's not a paternity test or a DNA identity test, where the margin of error is ridiculously small and can hence be used as proof at court. There is no Sudanese standard DNA code that all Sudanese adhere by, each one is different: there are millions of different DNA codes in Sudan or any other country. And most of them are also found in neighbouring or even very distant countries as well.

    How are you going to determine genetically if anyone is Sudanese, Greek or Scottish? Even if the population has its own clustering tendencies, the individuals do not and often get out of them wildly.

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  19. Furthermore, I'm right now thinking that if such idea ever becomes a practice, it would only fuel illegal mafias providing the tests and suggesting the best country to pretend you are from. So it may even provoke that people has to lie about his/her real origins because their individual DNA does not fit the archetype.

    Ultra-Kafkian!

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  20. Dienekes,
    If we go to the detail: the whole thing would be more costly and unreliable than the trained eye.
    Use that money to hire more professionals who would find out about the different countries, build a test set (dialects, geographic and other questions), etc.
    Test the system:
    "Hi, I am from chechnya"
    Put them to listen to chechen
    Ask them questions about chechnya
    etc.

    I doubt very much you can spot who is from Ecuador and who from colombia, who is from Togo, who is from a neighboring French speaking country via DNA tests.
    Use the money for higher salaries and more personnel producing a growing test set or double-checking with the embassies in the region.

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  21. I agree that the notion of using DNA to establish nationality is probably ill-considered. Of all the ways to verify someone's nationality, DNA would probably be near the bottom of the list. As others have pointed out, nationality is going to be much more strongly correlated with other cultural factors (language, history, religion, etc.) than with any genetic factors.

    VV

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  22. "than with any genetic factors."

    And ? I don't see the problem here. Using both Dna tests along with all other necessary tests will help to produce more correct assessments of the nationality of the person.

    The example dienekes used of a person from Morocco claiming he is an Iraqi could be used.

    Also one could ask a person to provide information for his family's genetic history.


    In any case though i think these methods are useless since all who apply for asylum and do not have any papers with them should be rejected their claim. The easiest method to handle this problem is to sent them in a nation that accepts them , in concentration camps and to make sure you make their life miserable and i guess there are other even more extreme methods that could be used but i may deny them on humanitarian grounds.

    The idea of Asylum refugees immigration is unappealing. Use the legal Chanel of immigration if you wish to immigrate use the legal channels.

    So i don't think this method should be used because 99% of all seeking asylum illegal immigrant cases should be rejected.

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  23. And ? I don't see the problem here. Using both Dna tests along with all other necessary tests will help to produce more correct assessments of the nationality of the person.
    The point is that using DNA tests may NOT "produce more correct assessments".

    In other words, it may not produce assessments that are any more correct than other assessments, and it may produce assessments that are LESS correct since DNA tests genetic factors, and nationality is not a genetic characteristic.

    Regardless of how much compassion you have and regardless of your political views about immigration, whether DNA will lead to better or worse assessments of nationality is an empirical question that (unfortunately) the UK seems to have been too dense to even bother asking.

    VV

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  24. Dienekes, perhaps I wrote my first post too quickly, so let me try breaking it up more...

    1. First there is the question of whether science can make statisically significant guesses about the regional origins of a person. It can. I do not think this is relevant.

    2. Will genetic profiling ever be able to make 100% accurate predictions of regional or national legal designations? No, by definition it will never do this, because no community now or in the past defines citizenship this way, and the question we are talking about is a legal question.

    (The fact that genetically atypical people might be more common in the US and UK does NOT mean that they don't exist in every community that ever existed. Who says there are no Iraqis whose ancestry was Morrocan?)

    3. So we are left with scientists being able to given inaccurate guesses, as advisors to the law, and that's all. This raises the next question, which is a legal question: are asylum seakers the same as people accused of a crime? I think they are not.

    4. Let's assume that an asylum seeker suggests himself that he be genetically profiled in order to prove that he is probably from a particular region. Should judges allow this? Yes, I think no one will disagree that they may sometimes judge that this should be allowed, but in many cases I believe good judges will treat such evidence as being of questionable importance. This evidence could be used amongst lots of other evidence but on its own it is not going to be worth much. That is how justice works.

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  25. The point is that using DNA tests may NOT "produce more correct assessments".

    That applies to every other kind of test for a person's nationality in the absence of documentation.

    Language? Someone could be a Pomak-speaking Greek citizen, and this wouldn't be detected by a linguistic test of Greek nationality. Or, they could be a long-term resident who is very fluent in Greek but not a Greek citizen.

    Culture? same as above.

    Knowledge? There are probably people outside Somalia that know more about the country than many Somalian nationals do.

    The fact is that there is nothing special about DNA. Like other types of test, it provides evidence that allows us to update our belief that a person is a citizen of this or that country. This updating is not guaranteed to always lead to a better decision, but no other test is. But, on average, it leads to better decisions, and that's the only thing possible in a world where every asylum seeker can't be accepted.

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  26. Dienekes,

    Again: we are not talking about letting more or less refugees in. We are talking about whether that test is useful at all and as far as I can see it is the least useful there is and one should use the money there is for more reliable tests.
    The case about Morocco is really the exception to the rule and anyway: there are no Moroccan genes, there are some clusters

    can you please get concrete with more user cases?
    Are you going to take mtDNA, Y haplogroup, what else? How much is the cost going to run to? How long will it take?

    Anyway: do you have numbers about how many people are claiming to be what in Greece and where they come from or may come from and what they claim?
    You see, the vast majority of cases won't be of people claiming to be the direct descendants of Alexander the Great or of Aaron.
    They will come from countries that were created between 1945 and 1965 and with 30 to 1000 ethnic groups.

    About the tests: we are not talking about what is the capital of Somalia. The amount of Russians who speak chechen fluently is almost equal to zero, the amount of people from Kenya who speak Amhari and who know details about some obscure town in Somalia the same.

    If you have a hammer you only see nails. If you really want to have a better control, you should try to optimize resources and see in a scientific way what methods may produce the best results with limited resources.
    THAT is an issue.

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  27. The case about Morocco is really the exception to the rule

    It is not the exception, as the point of the story I referred to was about an illegal operation that filled out peoples' asylum applications and instructed them to fill in certain countries. It is very well known that at least in Greece most asylum seekers are simply illegal immigrants who use the asylum procedure to get a temporary stay.

    How much is the cost going to run to?

    I believe that the UK gets about 30,000 or so asylum cases a year. At this bulk, I doubt it would cost more than $100/person including all the experts needed and the actual testing. A total of $3mn/year is small change compared to the overall cost of dealing with the problem one way or another. Ten times as much would be a good deal.

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