The United Nations’ refugee agency has rebuked Home Secretary Suella Braverman after she claimed the current asylum system is no longer fit for purpose.
Ms Braverman called for a reform of the international system in a speech in Washington DC.
She outlined how she believed the current system was “outdated”, and branded the number of displaced people in the world as an “epoch-defining challenge”.
The senior cabinet minister – whose speech was signed off by Number 10 – called for reform of the 1951 UN Human Rights Convention, which forms the basis of the asylum system.
The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, responded to Ms Braverman’s speech by saying the convention “remains as relevant today as when it was adopted in providing an indispensable framework for addressing those challenges, based on international co-operation”.
“The need is not for reform, or more restrictive interpretation, but for stronger and more consistent application of the convention and its underlying principle of responsibility sharing,” it added.
“An appropriate response to the increase in arrivals and to the UK’s current asylum backlog would include strengthening and expediting decision-making procedures.
“This would accelerate the integration of those found to be refugees and facilitate the swift return of those who have no legal basis to stay.
“UNHCR has presented the UK government with concrete and actionable proposals in this regard and continues to support constructive, ongoing efforts to clear the current asylum backlog.”
Ms Braverman said uncontrolled and illegal migration is an “existential challenge for the political and cultural institutions of the West” – adding that “uncontrolled immigration, inadequate integration, and a misguided dogma of multiculturalism have proven a toxic combination for Europe over the last few decades”.
Part of her speech criticised how current levels of migration have led to “undermining the stability and threatening the security of society” in “extreme cases”.
“If people are not able to settle in our countries, and start to think of themselves as British, American, French, or German, then something is going badly wrong,” she added.
Ms Braverman said “we now live in a completely different time” to when the UN Human Rights Convention was signed.
She went on: “Is the Refugee Convention in need of reform?
“What would a revised global asylum framework look like?
“How can we better balance national rights and human rights, so that the latter do not undermine national sovereignty?”
Ms Braverman also questioned whether courts have redefined asylum to be granted for people suffering “discrimination” instead of “persecution” – especially in the context of someone who is gay or a woman.
“Where individuals are being persecuted, it is right that we offer sanctuary.
“But we will not be able to sustain an asylum system if, in effect, simply being gay, or a woman, and fearful of discrimination in your country of origin, is sufficient to qualify for protection.”
Punchy home secretary landing blows ahead of party conference
It is no surprise to hear Suella Braverman talking tough on immigration.
Even so, today’s language is particularly punchy.
She talks about the “obvious threat to public safety and national security” illegal immigration poses and says “nobody entering the UK by boat from France is fleeing imminent peril”.
There has been backlash already, unsurprisingly, from charities and NGOs. One man who crossed the Channel in 2019 (fleeing Iran) told me the home secretary has “turned her back” on those in need.
It is criticism the home secretary is used to. Beyond the ethics, though, there is the question of whether anything she says will actually shift the dial.
The most eye-catching part of the home secretary’s speech was her call to reform the UN Refugee Convention. She says the convention, set up after the Second World War, needs to adapt for a “different time” and its application has shifted too far from helping people fleeing “persecution” to those fleeing “discrimination”.
It’s not clear there is any appetite to reform the convention from the 140+ other countries signed up to it. It won’t fix the small boats problem any time soon.
She also spoke about the importance of deterrents: Rwanda and the Illegal Migration Bill. The Rwanda plan has been bogged down in court, and there is no proof yet that government legislation will work. Small boat crossings are down from last year, but they are still much higher than 2021. Last month, more than 800 people crossed the Channel in a single day.
Suella Braverman pointed to polling showing most red wall voters want to stop small boat crossings “using any means necessary”. She did not point to the recent YouGov poll suggesting 86% believe the government is handling immigration badly.
Her speech may not distract from the perils of the government’s illegal migration policy, but it certainly sends a message ahead of the Conservative Party conference.
The speech and its contents were met with criticism from a range of charities, MPs and campaigners.
Ben Bradshaw, a gay Labour MP and former cabinet minister, asked if any “LGBT or any other Tories” were prepared to condemn the home secretary, adding that “being gay is enough to result in persecution or death in many countries”.
Michael Fabricant, a Tory MP and a patron of the Conservative LGBT+ group, said that “if someone simply claims to be gay in order to seek asylum, that should not lift the bar to entry to the UK”.
He added: “However, if someone has experienced persecution from the country from which they are escaping, it presents a different and far more persuasive case. Each application should be considered carefully on its merits.”
‘Cynicism and xenophobia’
Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, said: “The Refugee Convention is a cornerstone of the international legal system and we need to call out this assault on the convention for what it is – a display of cynicism and xenophobia.
“The Refugee Convention is just as relevant today as it was when it was created, and verbal assaults from the home secretary don’t alter the harsh realities that cause people from countries such as Sudan, Afghanistan and Iran to flee from conflict and persecution.”
He added: “Instead of making inflammatory speeches decrying the rights of people fleeing persecution and tyranny, Suella Braverman should focus on creating a functioning UK asylum system that tackles the massive backlog her policies have created, so as to be able to meet the limited refugee responsibilities that fall to the UK.”
Josie Naughton, chief executive of Choose Love, said: “It is the home secretary, not the global refugee convention, that is out of touch with the modern age.
“The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention was put in place to protect every human being searching for safety, fleeing war zones, danger and threats to their life and freedoms. More than ever, the world must come together and unite behind it. We cannot solve this problem by seeking to undermine fundamental human rights. Working together is the only solution.”