Home Secretary Suella Braverman has refused to rule out the UK leaving a global refugee charter if it continues unreformed, as she warned of the “existential threat” of uncontrolled migration.
She used a speech in the United States to advocate for the United Nations’ Refugee Convention to be overhauled as part of wider efforts to stop small boats crossing the Channel.
But, in a rebuke to the senior Conservative, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the organisation’s refugee agency, denied there was any need for reform.
Mrs Braverman said the current international framework governing refugee status, including the UN accord, was “contributing” to a system that was incentivising millions of asylum seekers to “try their luck”.
Calling for the “definition of who qualifies for protection” under refugee rules to be “tightened”, she said the threshold for asylum had steadily been lowered since the signing of the UN pact, which is backed by 149 states, more than 70 years ago.
In comments criticised by equalities campaigners, she said offering asylum to a person because they are discriminated against in their home country for being gay or a woman was not sustainable.
The UN’s refugee agency, while recognising the “complex challenges” presented by irregular migration, said the convention remained “crucial” for protecting people facing persecution.
“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,” the UNHCR said in a statement.
Labour’s shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, accused Mrs Braverman of “scapegoating” LGBT people during her Stateside speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a centre-right think tank.
The latest Home Office figures indicate that 2% of asylum claims made in the UK last year included sexual orientation as part of the basis for a claim.
The Home Secretary’s decision to rally against multilateral treaties comes against a backdrop of domestic struggles to control irregular migration.
She is tasked with helping to deliver the Prime Minister’s pledge of stopping the boats from crossing the Channel – one of five commitments that Rishi Sunak hopes to deliver ahead of a likely election next year.
Almost 24,000 migrants have arrived into the UK via small boats since January.
The official annual arrivals number, while down 26% from the same period in 2022, is likely to rise after people thought to be migrants were spotted being taken in to Dover, Kent, on Tuesday.
Mrs Braverman admitted that her called-for reforms to the UN’s 1951 refugee convention would be cumbersome due to the difficulty in getting all member states to agree.
Asked after her speech in Washington DC whether the UK would consider leaving the convention if reforms were not delivered, Mrs Braverman said the UK Government would do “whatever is required” to tackle the issue of migrants arriving via unauthorised routes.
She said: “The Prime Minister himself has said we will do whatever it takes to stop the boats and that is my position.”
During her address on Tuesday, which lasted more than half an hour, Mrs Braverman said that uncontrolled and irregular migration was “an existential challenge” for the West.
She said political systems that could not control their borders would “not maintain the consent of the people, and thus not long endure”.
She attacked the “misguided dogma” of multiculturalism, saying it had “failed”, with communities living “parallel lives”.
She said migration had been “too much, too quick” to the UK in the past 25 years, with “too little thought given to integration and the impact on social cohesion”.
In a warning to developed nations, Mrs Braverman said: “The global asylum framework is a promissory note that the West cannot fulfil.
“We have created a system of almost infinite supply, incentivising millions of people to try their luck, knowing full well that we have no capacity to meet more than a fraction of demand.”
Mrs Braverman used her US platform to defend the UK’s approach to tackling irregular migration.
The Refugee Convention is the cornerstone of the international refugee protection regime and remains a life-saving instrument. We urge the UK to join global efforts to find innovative and joined-up solutions, including through the upcoming #RefugeeForum. https://t.co/aCsb1sk1qT pic.twitter.com/nsmEe3qgh2
— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) September 26, 2023
The Illegal Migration Act, which has also faced criticism from the UNHCR, legislated for those arriving via the Channel to be deported to their country of origin, or to Rwanda, after ministers struck a £140 million deal with the east African country.
But the Kigali plan is tied up in the courts, with a deportation flight yet to take off.
The Home Secretary said the UK’s Rwanda policy should be “recognised as appropriate” and said it was “right” for countries to act bilaterally rather than wait for international reforms to be agreed.
Speaking about her own parents’ arrival in Britain – her father came from Kenya and her mother Mauritius – she said being a child of immigrants did not mean she had to adopt a “pro-migration” position.
She told a Q&A session after the speech: “It is no betrayal of my parents’ story to say that immigration must be controlled.”
She contrasted her parents migrating to the UK “lawfully” with those who “are coming here gaming the system”.
She added: “My job as Home Secretary is to be honest with the British people, to tell them that the system as it currently stands internationally is not working.
“We need to start working towards a solution that is sustainable and fair.”
Amnesty International UK accused Mrs Braverman, who ignored a question from a reporter as she was leaving the think tank venue about whether her speech had been designed to improve her chances as Tory leader, of “a display of cynicism and xenophobia”.