Government challenged on asylum seeker DNA tests

By agency reporter
26 Aug 2010

The UK Government could be acting illegally if it uses DNA testing to try to determine the country of origin of asylum seekers, a leading Scottish human rights campaigner says.

Professor Alan Miller, chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, and a top human rights lawyer, said moves to use DNA testing as a permanent part of the asylum application process could be contested in the European Court of Human Rights - reports the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (http://www.scvo.org.uk/).

Professor Miller was speaking at a Scottish Festival of Politics event that debated the legal and moral basis for a recent six month UK Border Agency (UKBA) pilot that used DNA testing in cases where an asylum seeker’s country of origin was in doubt.

The controversial UKBA Human Providence Pilot was aimed at addressing alleged problems of African asylum seekers claiming to come from war-torn Somalia because they were more likely to have their application approved.

However, it was amended at the last minute after an outcry from human rights bodies and scientists who claimed that it wasn’t possible to accurately determine a person’s country of origin from their DNA.

Testing did go ahead but the UKBA argued that it would not be used to determine a person’s right to asylum.

UK Immigration minister Damien Green, who is carrying out a review of the asylum process, has not yet indicated whether the controversial move will be rolled out permanently.

“If the government wants to legislate and put this into the asylum system they are on very, very shaky ground and they would be very susceptible to [being] challenged in the European Court of Human Rights,” said Miller at the event organised by the British Council and the Economic and Social Research Council Genomics Forum.

“A court under international human rights law, of which the UK is a signatory, faced with having to decide if the extraction of DNA from an individual was legal, has three tests to apply: legality, justification and whether it is proportionate, which is critically close to the heart of this matter.”

“The first question I would ask as a human rights lawyer is ‘What are the relevant and sufficient reasons for this DNA being taken?’ and then ‘Does it conclusively determine whether this person is bogus or genuine?’. If it doesn’t, then the state’s going to find it very difficult to justify why they are interfering with someone’s personal life and privacy in such a far reaching way."

Professor Miller was joined at the event by Dr Bruce Durie, course director of genealogical studies at the University of Strathclyde, and Gary Christie policy and research manager, at the Scottish Refugee Council.

The Scottish Refugee Council has campaigned strongly against the use of DNA testing as part of the asylum process. It argues that the move indicates the government’s desire to reduce asylum applications at the expense of a fair and just asylum system.

Speaking of the UKBA pilot, Christie said: “There was a major outcry when this was introduced, so they changed the pilot around slightly and said that testing for ethnicity and nationality was not going to have an impact on somebody’s claim.

“However, there was still concern that the fact that someone might refuse to have their DNA taken could potentially impact on their credibility.

“This is now within the scope of the UK Government’s asylum review and we would hope that it is something the new government will decide to bin.”

With acknowledgments to SCVO

[Ekk/3]

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