Canada Border Agents Using DNA Databases To Identify Liberian Detainee

By Nicholas Keung | Immigration Reporter |

Canada has been trying to deport Franklin Godwin since 2000 when the former refugee was declared a danger to the public for his lengthy criminal convictions of drug offences and fraud. The CBSA has turned to DNA searches in order to confirm his country of origin. (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

Canada has been trying to deport Franklin Godwin since 2000 when the former refugee was declared a danger to the public for his lengthy criminal convictions of drug offences and fraud.

Twice, in 2003 and 2005, Canada Border Services Agency escorted the 54-year-old Toronto man to Liberia, where he said he ran away from due to political persecution by a dictatorial regime — a claim his successful asylum bid in 1994 was based on. Twice, he was refused entry because officials didn’t believe he’s from there.

Canada has been trying to deport Franklin Godwin since 2000 when the former refugee was declared a danger to the public for his lengthy criminal convictions of drug offences and fraud. The CBSA has turned to DNA searches in order to confirm his country of origin.

Now, years after Canadian officials’ unchallenged belief that the man was a Liberian, the border agency claims Godwin is actually from Nigeria, partially based on DNA searches against ancestry websites — a controversial tool recently adopted to determine the identity of longer-term detainees.

“The methodology of the DNA search is very suspect,” said Subodh Bharati, who represents Godwin through the Osgoode Hall legal clinic. “I have family in India but I was born in Canada. Does it mean that I’m lying? Does it mean that I’m not Canadian now? This smells of discrimination.”

According to immigration lawyers, border officials have collected DNA samples from at least three immigration detainees in the past year in their attempts to identify their ethnicity, track down relatives and establish nationality in order to remove these individuals from Canada.

“As a person, I’m concerned about people using these (ancestry) sites to track down missing family members and family history not knowing their DNA might be used for law enforcement purposes,” noted Jared Will, who represents the other two detainees.

In Godwin’s case, border officials got him to sign consent for a DNA swab against databases on Familytree.com and Ancestry.com, and identified and contacted two of the matches, both of Nigerian descent, believed to be his third and fifth cousins, in the United Kingdom.

“CBSA uses DNA testing in order to determine identity of longer term detainees when other avenues of investigation have been exhausted,” said the agency’s spokesperson Jayden Robertson, who refused to release how many detainees have undergone the DNA searches to date.

“DNA testing assists the CBSA in determining identity by providing indicators of nationality thereby enabling us to focus further lines of investigation on particular countries.”

DNA is just one of the many tools that assist officials in their detective work, Robertson added.

In Godwin’s detention review last month, government counsel Jacqulyn Taylor said officials have also conducted linguistic analysis and knowledge quizzes about Liberia on the detainee.

“To date all the answers he has given indicate that he is not a person that grew up in Liberia,” she told adjudicator Mary Heyes.

Taylor also pointed out that Godwin in the past had made attempts to travel to Nigeria and his previous criminal activity involved a Nigerian drug smuggling ring.

“Why is an individual who is of Liberian descent leaving Canada after becoming a refugee and going to Nigeria?” asked Taylor. “It’s interesting.”

Citing Ancestry’s own website, Bharati said the DNA shared by a second cousin is 3 per cent and a fourth cousin is .195 per cent.

“All that shows us (is) one of the great, great, great grandparents lived in Nigeria,” Bharati said. “What is this honestly? This means nothing that can be put any weight on respectfully. This one cousin or two cousins from Nigeria means nothing.”

Based on his clients’ experience, Will said he understands that border services agency’s investigators simply acted as if they were the individuals, the detainees, when they logged on and searched on the DNA websites.

The border agency would not comment if it has any protocol or guideline in the use of DNA samples in investigations but said it requires consent from clients before submitting their information to DNA websites.

However, Will said detainees often have no choice but give consent. “The consent cannot be truly voluntary. These individuals are being detained and they risk prolonged detention because if they don’t give consent, they are alleged to be non-cooperating.”

Familytree.com did not respond to the Star’s repeated requests for comment. Ancestry.com offered a statement that said, “Protecting our customers’ privacy is Ancestry’s 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.”

Godwin was placed under immigration detention in March 2017 after serving a most recent criminal sentence. The detainee, said his lawyer, has been accused of being unco-operative with officials about his nationality.

“He went to Liberia; Liberia is refusing him. So how is Mr. Godwin supposed to effect his own removal to a country that’s refusing him?” asked Bharati at his client’s last detention review in July. “Mr. Godwin has gone to numerous interviews. There’s nothing more you can ask of him.”

Godwin was eventually released from detention two weeks ago after he was accepted by the Toronto Bail Program for supervision. He must report regularly to officials while awaiting his deportation.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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About Cholo Brooks 7268 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists.