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In Australia, DNA testing has been routinely used for decades in deciding who can and can’t enter the country. The story of one couple trying to make a new home in Australia has raised new questions about how exactly the tests work, and if they discriminate against people from certain racial backgrounds.

How one DNA test kept this family apart for a decade



In Australia, DNA testing has been routinely used for decades in deciding who can and can’t enter the country.

The tests can be used to unify families, but they can also tear them apart.

The story of one couple trying to make a new home in Australia has raised new questions about how exactly the tests work, and if they discriminate against people from certain racial backgrounds.

Today, writer Oscar Schwartz on the faulty science that is keeping families separated.

Guest: Writer for The Monthly Oscar Schwartz.

Show Transcript

[THEME MUSIC STARTS] 

 

BETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton. This is 7am.

 

In Australia, DNA testing has been routinely used -  for decades - in deciding who can and can’t enter the country. The tests can be used to unify families, but they can also tear them apart. The story of one couple trying to make a new home in Australia has raised new questions about how exactly the tests work, and if they discriminate against people from certain racial backgrounds. Today, writer Oscar Schwartz on the faulty science that is keeping families separated.

 

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

 

BETH:

Oscar, where does this story start? 

 

OSCAR:

So the story starts in 2011, Daniel Tedese was introduced to Genet Abebe by a mutual friend and they started speaking on the phone and started up a long distance relationship. And then after around a year of this long distance relationship, Daniel was in Melbourne and Genet was living in Cairo in Egypt, but they were both originally from Ethiopia. They decided to meet up in Addis Ababa, where Genet's family lived.There they spent basically every day together for three months and they fell deeply in love and they decided to get married. In February 2012, they had a huge wedding, around 300 people. It was a big feast, both of the families came. They met each other for the first time. After the wedding, they were going to move to Australia together and start a new life.

 

BETH:

Okay, so what happened next in their relationship? 

 

OSCAR:

So Daniel was actually an Australian citizen already at that stage, but Genet, of course, wasn't. So when he left to go back to Melbourne, Genet travelled to the Australian High Commission in Nairobi in Kenya to submit an application for a partner visa so that she could eventually join him. But things didn't go as planned. The officer that Genet met had apparently advised the Australian Immigration Department that there was a physical resemblance between her and Daniel. Both received letters requesting that they undertake a DNA test to support their visa claim. Daniel felt that they had nothing to hide, and so they both submitted their DNA samples to a lab in Melbourne. 

 

BETH:

​​OK, so at this point, Daniel and Genet have gotten married, but in order for Genet to receive that partner visa, the Australian Immigration Department is asking her to take a DNA test. So what did those results show? 

 

OSCAR:

Yeah, so Daniel received a surprising letter from the lab stating that there was quote “moderately strong evidence” to support that he and Genet were actually half siblings. The test results were also sent to the immigration authorities, who then turned down the visa application on the basis that the marriage was incestuous, meaning that it was void under Australian law. 

Daniel and Genet were incredibly shocked. I mean, there was no chance that they were related and it made absolutely no sense. Their families were from totally different parts of Ethiopia. 

 

Archival Tape -- Haileluel Gebrselassie

“They live in totally different places. He was born quite different area than his wife. “

 

OSCAR:

Haileluel Gebrselassie is a friend of Daniel's and a prominent member of the Ethiopian Melbourne community. And he's been working with Daniel as a translator and as an advocate throughout this whole process. 

 

Archival Tape -- Haileluel Gebrselassie

“When I spoke to him, he's really fed up. I think this is not an easy thing. This is really taking a toll at the moment. I talked to him and I said to him, alright I can speak and voice your concern. “

 

OSCAR:

So Daniel and Genet both consulted their families and they confirmed there was absolutely no historical connection between them. This was also confirmed by the priest who presided over their wedding. 

 

Archival Tape -- Haileluel Gebrselassie

“So the priest belongs to the Orthodox Church, and you are not allowed to marry after the seventh generation. This is what they call it. It is strictly prohibited.”

 

OSCAR:

Daniel ended up hiring an immigration lawyer and lodged an application to what was then called the Migration Review Tribunal. But every time Daniel's case was heard at the tribunal, it was knocked back on the basis of that original DNA test. And because of that, the visa application for a spouse kept being rejected. 

 

Archival Tape -- Haileluel Gebrselassie

“So his legal process is very exhaustive. He's tired and sick of it. I think thousands of dollars to be paid for legal representation. But I think more than the money, I think the psychological devastation and the mental health issue cannot be repaid. I think this is a permanent damage which this process is creating.” 

 

BETH:

Wow. It's an incredibly complex bureaucratic system that they have had to go through. So what did Daniel do next?  

 

OSCAR:

At that point, Daniel didn't really know where to turn. So he approached his priest, who then in turn put him in contact with Haileluel, who then emailed a journalist at The Age. 

 

Archival Tape -- Haileluel Gebrselassie

“So I was convinced that I need to do something about it, and I stepped in and had a conversation with one of The Age journalists who was genuinely trying to help this matter to draw the public's attention and wants to publish it. And I spoke to Daniel. Daniel agreed on that, and the case was published.”  

 

OSCAR:

...and it was syndicated to a New Zealand news website, which is where a geneticist by the name of Andrew Veale first learnt about Daniel's predicament. 

 

Archival Tape -- Andrew Veale

“There was an article on Stuff.co.nz, which is a news site in New Zealand. And there was one of those sort of clickbait-y headlines saying ‘Man finds out he married his sister’”

 

OSCAR:

Andrew is a scientist and has been involved in research calculating genetic relatedness for many years. 

 

Archival Tape -- Andrew Veale

“And I am always interested in anything to do with genetics and relatedness and very quickly saw lots of red flags. And I just thought quite probably that they had done the analysis wrong.”

 

OSCAR:

And he was extremely sceptical about the results and he felt compelled to try and help Daniel and Genet.

 

Archival Tape -- Andrew Veale

“I contacted Daniel, said, would it be alright if we did some more genetic tests? And then I paid for some tests through 23&Me, which is one of these online genetic tests for people to find their ancestry.” 

 

OSCAR:

He ended up getting Daniel and Genet to do a 23&Me test, which uses updated DNA technology. And in 2019, when the results came back, they were unequivocal. 

 

Archival Tape -- Andrew Veale

“As soon as I saw that, it was completely conclusive and obvious. Daniel and Genet are completely unrelated. The chances are that you and I are probably more closely related than they are to each other.”

 

OSCAR:

Daniel and Genet in fact shared such little DNA that Veale couldn't even track a shared common ancestor back four generations, let alone a shared parent.
  

BETH:

So Oscar, Daniel and Genet did an initial DNA test that said they were half-siblings. Genet’s visa was denied on that basis. But then a second test said they weren’t related. So how is there this discrepancy?

 

OSCAR:

So obviously, DNA testing is a science, but even in precise science, there can be mistakes. Lots of these tests are really dependent on your racial or ethnic background. And in DNA testing, there are mistakes that can be made, particularly when testing people of African ancestry. And this is precisely what happened to Daniel and Genet. 

 

BETH:

We’ll be right back.

 

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BETH:

Oscar, we're talking about the Australian Immigration Department's use of DNA testing for the granting of visas. I don't think a lot of people would know that the government uses this kind of technology for immigration purposes. Can you walk me through that history, when did the government start using DNA testing in immigration disputes? 

 

OSCAR:

So the particular type of technology that's used is called STR testing, and it was discovered in the mid 1980s. And in fact, the very first use of STR testing was in an immigration case. 

 

Archival Tape -- Jeff Goldblum:

“On September 17th 1984 - Alec Jeffreys made a discovery that would turn DNA into a household word. Within a year DNA fingerprinting had settled the first of thousands of immigration disputes proving this family was entitled to access to Britain. The following year, DNA evidence was used...”.  

 

OSCAR:

It was used by someone seeking immigration to the UK to prove that they were, in fact, related to their mother. 

 

Archival Tape -- Alec Jeffreys: 

“So we now had the DNA fingerprint of the missing father, DNA fingerprint of the mother, and then the DNA fingerprint of the boy in dispute. And every single genetic character in that boy matched either the mom or the character in the missing father.” 

 

OSCAR:

From there, it helped many, many thousands of people who were making immigration claims to prove the relationships. And so it was really good in this sense and seems like a very powerful tool for family reunification. 

 

Archival Tape -- Alec Jeffreys:

“That opened a floodgate on heaven knows how many immigration disputes. We had no idea there were so many families trapped in these disputes.”  

 

OSCAR:

But since then, there has been updates in the technology. The type of technology that 23&Me uses is in fact a much more powerful technology for proving family relatedness and doesn't fall into the same types of potential inaccuracies that existed in that original STR testing. 

 

BETH:

So this older STR testing originally worked well - and actually helped unify families in immigration disputes. But now we seem to be seeing issues with that older technology - can you tell me about what some of those issues are, and why it's a problem that the technology hasnt been updated?

 

OSCAR:

So STR testing - that original test that was used - depends on what's known as a reference population database. So when two people are being tested to see if they're related, they're then compared against a reference population. That means that if that reference population is not accurate, it can create false positives. Particularly if the two people are from a similar ethnic background. Because what can happen is that ethnic background is misunderstood to mean family relatedness. 

 

Archival Tape -- Andrew Veale

“And one of the things that immediately sprung up in the report on the original relatedness test was that they said that the reference population was African.” 

 

OSCAR:

For people of African ancestry, it's really important that this reference database be as accurate as possible because people from West Africa are genetically less related to people from East Africa as someone from, say, Japan is to someone from Germany.

 

Archival Tape -- Andrew Veale

“So you could not actually accurately calculate relatedness of two Ethiopians using African as a dataset. If you get the reference population even slightly wrong, you will get the wrong answer and it will overestimate the relatedness of two individuals.” 

 

OSCAR:

Now that we have the different and updated types of tests like the ones used by 23&Me, this isn't a problem because in fact, they don't have to use these reference population databases. You have to question whether this is an oversight due to negligence or whether it somehow reflects a racialized immigration policy that obviously has a long history in this country. 

 

Archival Tape -- Andrew Veale

“I think that it's criminally negligent that they rely on these tests.They give the wrong answers and they give specifically wrong answers for cases of people from other countries.”

 

BETH:

Right, so what we’re seeing here is that this older technology essentially discriminates against people from African backgrounds - which seems to be what Daniel and Genet have confronted through their visa application process. But now that they've done this new test - the 23&Me test - what's happened? Has it had any impact on their case?

 

OSCAR:

So somewhat unbelievably, it has had no impact because the only evidence that is allowed to be taken into consideration by the tribunal or by the courts is from an accredited laboratory and the accredited laboratory all use the outdated form of the test. So the 23&Me, which beyond all reasonable doubt proves that they're not related, has not been seen by anyone in authority and will not be seen by anyone in authority. 

 

Archival Tape -- Andrew Veale

“I'm extremely angry and upset.  He is unrelated to his wife. And the failings of a company and a government has done this to him.”    

 

BETH:

So this process started nearly a decade ago. They've gone through all of these ups and downs. I mean, I can't even imagine - it's such a heartbreaking process - how is Daniel doing? Have you heard from him? 

 

OSCAR:

Yeah, I've met Daniel a couple of times, and you can tell that he's utterly devastated and somewhat hopeless. His wife is still living in Addis Ababa. They've been separated essentially since they were married.

 

Archival Tape -- Haileluel Gebrselassie

“Obviously the corona issue is another layer of challenge. And you have to have a compelling reason to travel, so that's also very strict.”

 

OSCAR:

And it's basically kind of an unfathomably horrible situation for him. He's had 10 years of his life taken away. 

 

Archival Tape -- Haileluel Gebrselassie

“He loves the people, he loves the country, but he doesn't really understand why his migration case is stopped and also he has to go through all these traumatic experiences.”

  

BETH:

It's just incredibly devastating, do you know other people that are in a similar position to Daniel? 

 

OSCAR:

So that's what's frustrating about this whole scenario. The DNA testing is done by private labs who are under no obligation to reveal their data. So we actually can't know how many people are affected like Daniel. So the question is how many people are in Daniel's situation and will they ever get out of it? 

 

Archival Tape -- Andrew Veale

“He's really devastated. And also, you know, feeling at the moment helpless and seeking really, support and help from anyone who can be able to help him at the moment.” 

 

BETH:

Oscar, thank you so much for your time. 

 

OSCAR:

Thank you. 

 

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[THEME MUSIC STARTS] 

 

BETH:

Also in the news today…

 

There are concerns that a mass protest held over the weekend in Sydney against lockdowns could be a super-spreader event. NSW Premier Gladys Berejikjlian said she was “disgusted, disappointed and heartbroken” that people didn’t consider the safety and wellbeing of their fellow citizens. The state recorded 141 cases of Covid-19 yesterday. 

 

And the federal government has signed a deal with Pfizer to acquire tens of millions of vaccine booster shots. However the bulk of the new doses won’t arrive until 2023.

I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton, and it’s been a blast hosting the show over the past few weeks. Ruby Jones will be back with you from tomorrow, and I’ll see ya next time.

 

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]