The Human Provenance Project

Free Movement — 

Mouth swabIt sounds like the title of a dystopian science fiction film, and it is every bit as bad as it sounds. The first I heard of it was on 14th September 2009 after this letter was circulated to UKBA stakeholders. I had a little rant about it at the time in another forum, complaining there was something unpleasantly eugenicist about it, lamenting the daft liberal arts graduates who approved it who understand neither science nor statistics and suggesting they start measuring skull size and penis length for good measure.

Free Movement is a proud graduate in, er, history, incidentally.

The Human Provenance Project involves taking tissue samples from asylum claimants, including children. This is only done by ‘consent’, but the policy document that UKBA has published makes it quite clear that failure to give consent will count against a claimant:

If an asylum applicant refused to provide samples for the isotope analysis and DNA testing the case owner could draw a negative inference as to the applicant’s credibility and if appropriate apply Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. Section 8 states that where an asylum applicant has behaved in way that is designed or likely to conceal information or mislead the UK Border Agency; it could be seen as damaging the applicant’s credibility.

Bold claims are made in the policy document. The tissue samples ‘voluntarily’ handed over will be subject to isotope analysis. The science is held out as the miracle solution to disputed nationality cases:

Isotope analysis is based on a forensic technique which was pioneered during the ‘Adam Torso’ case – a police case in which a child’s torso was found in the Thames too mutilated to offer any kind of identification… In this case the child’s body was traced to a small Nigerian town in an area about 100 x 50 km wide.

To be fair, the document does state that the Adam Torso case involved bone testing, and that even UKBA thinks that taking bone samples might be a little intrusive. What is not stated is that instead UKBA seem to be relying on a very different form of isotope analysis to that used in the Adam Torso case, which is far less accurate and cannot possibly help determine nationality with any useful degree of accuracy.

This first started to emerge in the blogosphere but is now hitting the mainstream media. There are also items about it here, here and here worth reading.

One would hope that even arts graduate immigration and other judges wouldn’t give any test results the time of day given all this adverse scientist reaction. One also has to wonder (a) how much money UKBA has spent on this and (b) what idiots thought it was a good idea and then what idiots approved it. And what subjects they studied at university.

I’ll end by noting how dishonest the policy document is. It very clearly seeks to suggest that the test results are far more accurate than they actually are. In nearly ten years of doing this work I can’t remember seeing clearer proof of UKBA deceit. This kind of debacle does the organisation no favours, to put it mildly.

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The Free Movement blog was founded in 2007 by Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration law. The blog provides updates and commentary on immigration and asylum law by a variety of authors.

5 responses to The Human Provenance Project

  1. Also see the excellent piece by Henry Porter on his Guardian blog.

  2. frog in a kettle 4 October 2009 at 3:20 pm

    “It sounds like the title of a dystopian science fiction film, and it is every bit as bad as it sounds.”

    Less science fiction than history repeating itself.

    Nazi racial experts used instruments such as nose calipers to determine racial background “scientifically.”

    Proponents of the smoking ban will doubtlessly support these measures.

    Both these scientific initiatives were implemented in pre-war Germany.

    http://www.holocaustchronicle.org/staticpages/94.html
    http://www.bmj.com/archive/7070nd2.htm

  3. My lord, I have a cunning plan…….

    The fact is, if you look at the original research based on the body was found (the torso case), it used with a limited number of subjects. Additionally the paper makes points about narrowing the DNA’s origin to a few East African regions (Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzinia etc.). I would pop a link up to the paper, but it has restrictions about posting links to it. Really to be sure about the technique for asylum cases, you’d want to have a much bigger sample, but even then it doesn’t appear to be a wholly determinative technique stood on it’s own.

    The trick is of course that if you spent some time drinking a lot of bottled water in a refugee camp (say perhaps that we sent bottled water there), and also food from the camp (from the EU’s food mountain), this would have a direct impact on the test. The paper freely admits that peeing a lot, sweating profusely, having a baby and then breastfeeding, and other factors can change the isotope levels in the body. If anyone is interested in the reasons for this then i’ll happily explain.

    Bone analysis I would imagine to be bloody painful, and quite similar to being checked out as a potential donor for bone marrow. The reason for the bone test with the torso is that the internal bits from bones are normally the last to atrophy after death, the outside stuff will be broken down, and hence you end up with all manner of oddities in DNA samples.

    To quote one of the respondents from the above links in relation to the analysis performed: “what they are selling is little better than genetic astrology”. Yep I think that’s a pretty fair analysis.

    This will end in a JR somewhere along the line.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Plug pulled on Provenance Project « Free Movement - 8 October 2009

    […] difficult to credit that the Government had decided to go ahead with this in the first place. My last post on this focussed on the ridiculous claims made for the science behind the project. The project was […]

  2. Flawed Forensic Science « NOT Science NOT Fortnightly - 20 October 2009

    […] testing using DNA is a “standard and robust technology”. However, the idea of the (UKBA)’s “Human Provenance Pilot Project” is to test for nationality. The main nationalities in mind are Kenyans potentially masquerading as […]