In another example of the extraordinary lengths Canadian immigration officials go to deport migrants, the Canada Border Services Agency has been collecting their DNA and using ancestry websites to find and contact their distant relatives and establish their nationality.
“I think it is a matter of public interest that border service agencies like the CBSA are able to obtain access to DNA results from sites like Familytreedna.com and Ancestry.com,” said Subodh Bharati, a lawyer who is representing a man who says he’s Liberian, but who the government is now trying to prove is actually Nigerian. “There are clear privacy concerns. How is the CBSA able to access this information and what measures are being put in place to ensure this information remains confidential?”
Bharati, who is representing his client through CLASP, the legal aid clinic at Osgoode Hall Law School, said he is aware of at least two individuals who used Familytreedna.com, one in the UK, who have been contacted by the CBSA seeking to deport someone from Canada.
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“Individuals using these sites to look at their family tree should be aware that their confidential information is being made available to the government and that border agents may contact them to help facilitate the deportation of migrants,” he said.
Both companies deny working with law enforcement.
Franklin Godwin, one of Bharati’s clients, who was accepted as a refugee from Liberia and granted permanent resident status in 1996, was charged two years later with importing and conspiring to import heroin and sentenced to seven years in jail. Because of the seriousness of his criminal convictions, Godwin’s permanent residence status was taken away and the government ordered him deported back to Liberia.
"Individuals using these sites to look at their family tree should be aware [it may] help facilitate the deportation of migrants."
But when he arrived in Liberia in 2003, accompanied by Canadian immigration officials and with a travel certificate in hand from the Liberian embassy in Ghana, he was denied entry into the country by Liberian officials, who claimed that only the embassy in Washington could issue a legitimate document, and that what he had was fake.
Godwin was brought back to Canada. The government also tried to deport him in 2005, but he was rejected once more, with officials claiming again he wasn’t a Liberian national. He was brought back.
Since then, Godwin has been ricocheting between the criminal justice system — with multiple charges of theft, fraud, breaching bail conditions — and the CBSA.
But in 2017, Godwin’s case took a strange turn. Based on what they’ve been told by the Liberian government, a linguistics report conducted by a Swedish company that’s been discredited in other countries, as well as DNA testing, the Canadian government is now also speculating that Godwin is not Liberian, but a Nigerian national.
At his latest immigration hearing, Godwin was told by the member that while the first DNA testing was “only somewhat helpful, they have now moved on to another DNA organization which they are hoping, because it has an expanded database and several sites, that they will be able to further identify [him] through that.”
"DNA testing is a measure that is used when other avenues have been exhausted."
A spokesperson for the CBSA would not comment on the specifics of Godwin’s case. But he confirmed that CBSA does use DNA testing “as part of a suite of investigative techniques in an effort to confirm an individual’s identity.”
“DNA testing is a measure that is used when other avenues have been exhausted,” said CBSA spokesperson Jayden Robertson.
“The CBSA does not publically discuss the mechanics of its investigative techniques in a public forum, as doing so would render them ineffective,” Robertson added. “The CBSA works closely with its domestic and international law enforcement partners to enforce its mandate.”
Godwin has never seen the results of the first test, and neither has Bharati. He points out that Godwin was facing indefinite detention in a maximum security prison and was willing to do anything to get himself out, including providing his DNA.
“It’s his DNA that they’re using to determine his nationality and they’re not releasing this test results to him for some sort of privacy concern — they say they don’t want him to reach out to these individuals that they’ve found in his family tree, despite the fact that he’s in a maximum security prison,” said Bharati, adding that the whole premise of using DNA to establish nationality is flawed since ethnic origin doesn’t necessarily tell what someone’s citizenship is.
A similar issue arose in the case of Olajide Ogunye, a Canadian who was detained for eight months after the CBSA claimed his fingerprints matched those of a failed refugee claimant who they believed had returned to Canada illegally. The agency has never produced the fingerprint sample they used to identify Ogunye. He’s now suing the Canadian government for $10 million for wrongful arrest and negligent investigation.
Jared Will, another Toronto-based immigration lawyer, has also had two clients who had their DNA analyzed on the website FamilytreeDNA.com. He described the process as “extorted consent.” In one case, the agency was trying to establish Gambian nationality, and in the other, Ghanaian. Both samples were taken in 2017.
"They can’t really say no.”
“In both cases, I think what they were looking for is evidence of the country to which they wanted to deport them,” said Will. “But in both cases, clients are in detention and if they don’t do what’s asked of them to facilitate removal, non-cooperation is used against them, so they can’t really say no.”
Bharati has also found that Godwin’s story of being denied entry at the border isn’t unique for Liberian nationals. Emails obtained through access to information reveal immigration officials repeatedly mention how difficult it is to deport someone to Liberia and the lack of cooperation from Liberian officials even when deportees have documents that have been issued by the Liberian government. Emails reference officials in Monrovia “bouncing back our cases for no apparent reason,” and Canadian officials often being told that the identity of the person they’re sending or the documentation is fraudulent. In one email, a CBSA officer says he was told by a UN police officer that because there was an election coming up, Liberian officials were reluctant to let people in because they didn’t want deportees to change the outcome of the election.
“It’s not the case that Mr. Godwin is lying — Liberia doesn’t repatriate its own citizens, especially the ones that have criminal records so Canada brings him back,” Bharati told VICE News.
But Canada now seems to be taking their word. They conducted a linguistics analysis with Godwin using a Swedish company called Sprakab, which concluded that he doesn’t sound Liberian, using a 24-minute recording taken in 2017. Godwin’s lawyer Subodh Bharati doesn’t know where the recording came from and hasn’t been allowed to hear it.
"Protecting our customers’ privacy is the highest priority."
In February, the CBSA revealed during Godwin’s detention review hearing that they had interviewed two people — a second through a fourth cousin of his in the UK and a third through a fifth cousin, whose location was unknown, both of whom were of Nigerian descent. They wouldn’t release the names of others they were attempting to reach because they didn’t want the investigation to be thwarted, according to transcripts.
“What I find interesting is that when people in the UK or anyone goes on ancestry.com to check their family tree, they probably have no idea that the Canadian border agency would have access to their private phone number and be able to examine if there’s a DNA match with a migrant in Canada and they’ll essentially get a phone call from border agents, who essentially ask for help in deporting migrants back to places,” said Bharati.
For its part, FamilyTreeDNA told VICE News it “does not work directly with Canadian law enforcement, and has no knowledge of Canadian law enforcement or its border agency using the FTDNA platform for the purpose of gathering migrant DNA to determine nationality.” Spokesperson Theresa Murphy added that DNA collection must be done under “restricted-use guidelines to be managed and held in a restricted-use repository outside the government's purview.”
“FamilyTreeDNA hopes our colleagues in the genetic genealogy industry and leaders in the bioethics sector will work together to formulate privacy policies and restricted-use guidelines on behalf of the migrant populations at our borders,” said the statement.
Ancestry also told VICE News that “protecting our customers’ privacy is” its “highest priority, and that starts with the basic belief that customers should always maintain ownership and control over their own data. Ancestry has not worked with border agencies for this or for any other purpose.”
Cover image taken late Wednesday, July 25, 2018, of migrants as they prepare to spend the night onboard a Spanish Maritime Rescue Service boat docked at the port of Algeciras, southern Spain, after being rescued in the Strait of Gibraltar. Photo by Marcos Moreno/AP