The home secretary Suella Braverman has today questioned whether the United Nations Refugee Convention, created in 1951 and which forms the basis of the global asylum system, is still “fit for our modern age” as part of a visit to the US.
The comments came in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a centre-right think tank in Washington DC.
The home secretary has already criticised European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), signed in 1950, and is said to be privately lobbying for the UK’s withdrawal from the agreement.
In her speech today, Braverman also argued that being discriminated against for being LGBT+ or being a woman is not enough to qualify for asylum.
She said that there are “vast swathes of the world where it is extremely difficult to be gay, or to be a woman”.
But added: “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.”
She also argued that “nobody entering the UK by boat from France is fleeing imminent peril” and therefore have “‘no good cause’ for illegal entry”.
Calling for reform of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, Braverman argued that while it was an “incredible achievement”, we are now “in a completely different time” given the transformation of modes of travel, as well as the development of the internet and communication tools.
The home secretary added that when the Refugee Convention was signed it gave protection to two million people — but it now extends to 780 million people.
She called on politicians to ask whether it is “fit for our modern age or in need of reform”.
She added that “most members of the public would recognise those fleeing a real risk of death, torture, oppression or violence, as being in need of protection”.
But in practice, she continued, case law has moved from protection from “persecution” to protection from “discrimination”.
The CEO of ActionAid UK, a charity that works against poverty worldwide, Halima Begum responded to the speech in a statement: “We know from our work across the world that for many women and girls, seeking asylum is the only lifeline left when fleeing persecution.
“Denying this fundamental right is not just a policy choice; it’s a direct affront to gender equality and human rights.
“Upholding the humanitarian duty to provide refuge and safety to women in need is not just an option; it’s an imperative.”
Lord Alf Dubs, who fled the Holocaust on a Kindertransport to the UK, also condemned the speech, tweeting: “In many countries being gay is an imprisonable offence. For some, it means the death penalty.
“She’s repeating the shameful policy that people should not be treated as refugees if they arrive here by boat.
“But she’s closed virtually all other means of arrival.”
Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said in a tweet: “Suella Braverman targeting LGBT+ people persecuted for being who they are is a shameful new low.
“International conventions aren’t to blame for Tory incompetence. We need to boot this rotten government out of office”.
As part of her US trip, Braverman will also meet US homeland security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as well as attorney general Merrick Garland for talks on migration and national security.
It comes as nearly 24,000 people have been detected crossing the Channel in “small boats” this year so far, despite Rishi Sunak’s pledge in January to “stop the boats”.
The government’s flagship plan to deal with such crossings is currently stalled, with the Rwanda deportations deal tied up in the courts.