Opinion

What happens when human provenance is used to determine immigration rights?

By Moss Tawny

Published Sep 12, 2018 at 04:00 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

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Contemporary politics have seen a massive swing towards nationalism for better and, much more often, for worse. Simultaneously, widespread environmental and social unrest has led to an intensification in migration all across the world. These two factors in tandem have created a climate in which the concept of ‘nationality’ and an individual’s ability to demonstrate it, have become vitally important. Yet nationality is not the clean bright line that politicians and immigration officials wish it were.

What solid proof of nationality can any individual attempting to migrate really provide? Though the majority of decisions can be made on the basis of legal and government documents, there are cases, both innocent and nefarious, where these traditional avenues fail. When they do, officials must turn to other means. For Canada, along with the U.S., the U.K. and several other European nations, the answer is physical: our provenance is baked into our bodies, stamped upon our DNA, like a maker’s mark. In addition, it is discernible with the right tools; tools borrowed from anthropology, archaeology, and, worryingly, from commercial genealogy websites. Establishing whether or not gene testing as part of immigration decision making actually works is not as trivial as it may seem given the surprising complexity that is nationality.

Simply understood, an individual’s nationality is that nation state within which they have the privilege of belonging, whether through circumstance of birth or granted through naturalisation. With this privilege comes, aside from the obvious right to remain, a multitude of other opportunities that depend on the nation’s geopolitical relationships. For instance, British nationals have certain advantages when migrating to Commonwealth countries and vice versa. To that end, demonstration of nationality can be hugely beneficial and any doubt over the truthfulness of one’s claim, devastating.

So how exactly can nationality be proven when the nature of a nation state (what it constitutes, where it’s boundaries lie), is so tricky to pin down? While it seems tangible, even obvious from a common sense perspective, nation is a mutable concept.

You might say that it is as simple as one’s country of birth. What then of unions and blocs? A child born in Scotland can move freely to Wales via England as if the distinctions between these counties were non-existent. Which of course they both are, and aren’t. What happens when a nation ceases to be, through fragmentation or absorption? Take anyone over the age of 30 from what is known, perhaps a little frivolously as the “Yugo-sphere”, former Yugoslavia, presently: Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro. The issue of which nation you became a part of after the breakup of Yugoslavia was incredibly complex, more likely determined by ethnicity than location, violently so in some instances, and is still ongoing today. Further complication arises when these overlapping but distinct concepts of nation, race, and ethnicity interact with an individual’s legal status.

Given these complications, how exactly can science conclusively determine someone’s nation of origin? The most recent Canadian strategy, employed in an indeterminate and unstated number of asylum claims, involves DNA profiling alongside other evidence derived from linguistic analysis software, interviews with friends and even analysis of social media, to determine an individual’s “real” country of origin. Does this actually work?

Let’s look at the case of Ebrahim Toure, who, though non-violent and cooperative, has appeared in front of the quasi-judicial Canadian Refugee board 67 times and has been held at a detention centre in Toronto for nearly half a decade. Four years of that time were spent in a maximum security facility. Upon arriving in Canada claiming to be from French Guinea, Toure quickly ran afoul of immigration authorities who believed this claim to be false. After traditional investigative methods proved inconclusive, authorities built a case that placed Toure’s actual provenance in the Gambia. This was based on analysis of his social media, showing a large number of Gambian friends, a linguistic test, and a DNA test form a for-profit genealogy company which showed he had distant relatives in the Gambia. The circumstantial nature of this evidence is obvious, Toure even pointed out that his upbringing was transient and that his mother was Senegalese, yet the quantum of proof is apparently sufficient to warrant his detention until the Gambia agrees to his return.

Perhaps, then the Canadian strategy is on the softer end of the scientific spectrum. What about a more directly scientific method? Could this provide a more concrete answer? Such a scheme, ominously named the Human Provenance Project, was trialled but ultimately abandoned by the U.K.’s border force in 2009. Under this project, similar DNA tests would be used in conjunction with population demographics to distinguish between claimants from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan.

The Human Provenance Project also proposed the use of isotope signature tests, a process used by archaeologists to identify markers absorbed from an individual’s surroundings and diet to determine where they spent their life. In archaeology these tests are conducted using deep bone tissue. The project wanted to use hair or teeth samples to run these tests. Now at the risk of stating the obvious, teeth and hair are not the same thing as deep bone tissue. As scientists pointed out at the time, the best you could hope for using this method is a reflection of the environment an individual has been in for the past two years. In Toure’s case, it would have reflected the detention centre in Toronto much more than either Gambia or French Guinea.

The problem with these kinds of methods is twofold. First the resolution, that is the accuracy to which they can pinpoint location is very broad and even more unreliable. Perhaps you could establish which end of the 30 million km2 African continent a person’s family came from. Distinguishing the relatively tiny distances between Sudan and Eritrea is much less plausible. While that lack of resolution isn’t massively consequential when examining 70,000 year old human remains, when deciding whether to deport someone, perhaps even to their death, the margin for error is much less forgiving.

Secondly, practising these tests with a kind of scientific respectability gives them an undue epistemic weight which is at best irresponsible and at worst dangerous. DNA tests are not infallible and run the risk of contamination, even under stringent scientific and forensic laboratory settings. Move that setting to a busy border facility and replace trained lab staff with minimally trained immigration officers and you have a recipe for poor accuracy that could be disastrous for those seeking asylum. Yet by slapping the label of “scientifically proven” on what is at best a rough guess we grant it the status of immutable, inarguable fact.

Using bad science or even pseudo-science to reify socially constructed categories into biological ones is very slippery territory. So too is using this ‘evidence’ to make a legal decision. If it sounds familiar it’s because this concept has been the basis of everything from Nazi extermination policies, eugenics movements, Jim Crow laws, white supremacist groups, ethnic cleansings and many other regimes of thought since the enlightenment which seek to exclude.

It’s not that DNA and material evidence cannot ever tell us anything useful in immigration cases. It might be able to support legal evidence in a few cases, perhaps a member of Toure’s extended family could be tracked to a certain region and it might be possible to contact them and obtain testimony that supports or contradict his claim. Yet as with forensic DNA evidence in a criminal case, this material should be supplementary to, not the sole basis of, a legal argument. Relying on DNA evidence alone opens us up to profound miscarriages of justice and when it boils down to deciding whether or not to deport a human being, it can even mean the difference between life and death.

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