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UK's Braverman lobbies in US for tougher asylum rules

September 26, 2023

Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman called for governments to rewrite global refugee rules to make them "fit for the modern age." She said "simply being gay, or a woman" should not in itself entitle refuge.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman delivers a keynote address on global migration challenges at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, during her three-day visit to the US. Tuesday September 26, 2023.
Braverman saying that multiculturalism had 'failed' raised eyebrows in the UK, given the minister's own diverse background, and that of her bossImage: Stefan Rousseau/empics/picture alliance

Suella Braverman argued at a Washington DC think tank on Tuesday that international refugee rules should be rewritten and modernized to reduce the number of people entitled for protection, calling what she described as the status quo "absurd and unsustainable." 

Braverman, who is home secretary (or interior minister) in the Conservative Party's government in Britain, is seeking support abroad as the UK tries to adopt a tougher stance on irregular migration in particular. She was speaking at the American Enterprise Institute think tank as part of a three-day trip to the US. 

She called for changes to the United Nations 1951 refugee convention, ratified by Britain and roughly 150 other countries and still the legal foundation for the protection of refugees worldwide, saying that uncontrolled migration posed an "existential threat" to western countries.

"Just as it is a basic rule of history that nations which cannot defend their borders will not long survive, it is a basic rule of politics that political systems which cannot control their borders will not maintain the consent of the people, and thus not long endure," Braverman said.

A group of people thought to be migrants crossing the Channel in a small boat traveling from the coast of France and heading in the direction of Dover, Kent. Picture date: Tuesday August 29, 2023.
Britain's primary focus, though by no means its primary source of migration, are small boat crossings on the English ChannelImage: Gareth Fuller/empics/picture alliance

What did Braverman say? 

Braverman said that people at risk of discrimination because of their gender or sexuality should not be granted asylum unless they could demonstrate they were "fleeing a real risk of death, torture, oppression or violence."

"Where individuals are being persecuted, it is right that we offer sanctuary," she said. "But we will not be able to sustain an asylum system if in effect, simply being gay, or a woman, or fearful of discrimination in your country of origin, is sufficient to qualify for protection." 

More than 60 countries on the planet still outlaw same sex relations and it seems safe to assume all have gay or lesbian residents.

She also told the audience that a "misguided dogma of multiculturalism" had failed, "and you can see it play out on the streets of cities all over Europe — from Malmo to Paris, Brussels to Leicester." 

These comments — coming from one of Britain's most senior government officials, herself of a mixed background serving under the country's first non-white prime minister — elicited bafflement from some commentators in Britain. 

"She's a British Home Secretary descended from Goan Indians from Mauritius and Kenya, married to a Jewish husband, in a government headed by Britain's first Hindu PM. What would successful multiculturalism look like?" journalist Hugo Rifkind asked on social media soon after the speech.

Place of application a focus for island nation

Braverman argued that some 850 million people were eligible for asylum under the current rules, although this was using a highly disputed number given that there are some 35 million refugees worldwide.

She was taking a conservative think tank's figure that was assuming, for example, that anybody who was gay in a country where it was illegal would qualify, or that anyone in Afghanistan not a member of the Taliban would qualify. Most governments, including Britain's, see the issue differently.

Britain's Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaks on immigration at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, in Washington.
Braverman is currently seen as a potential future Conservative leader, especially in the event of defeat at the next general electionImage: Kevin Wolf/AP Photo/picture alliance

The home secretary also sought in particular to focus on where people apply for asylum, as Britain's government has made stopping the arrival of small boats — usually from France sailing across the Channel — one of its five main priorities. 

"[The convention] also states that where people are crossing borders without permission, they should present themselves without delay to the authorities, and must show good cause for any illegal entry," Braverman said. "The UK along with many others, including America, interpret this to mean that people should seek refuge and claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach. But NGOs and others, including the UN refugee agency, contest this."

She argued that a "status quo" had emerged "where people are able to travel through multiple safe countries, and even reside in safe countries for years while they pick and choose their preferred destination to claim asylum." Braverman surmised that this situation was "absurd and unsustainable." 

rime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference following the launch of new legislation on migrant channel crossings at Downing Street on March 7, 2023 in London, United Kingdom.
Four of Rishi Sunak's five top government priorities focus on the economy and public services, while the other is effectively borrowed from political critics to his right like Nigel FarageImage: Leon Neal/Getty Images

PM Sunak's ill-fated pledge to 'stop the boats'

The Conservative government led by Rishi Sunak in January laid out what it said was its top five priorities in government. 

Three are fundamentally economic in nature — promoting growth, halving inflation and reducing the national debt — one is reducing waiting lists at Britain's publicly funded National Health Service, and the other is to "stop the boats." This is a reference to efforts for asylum-seekers to cross the Channel, usually but not always from France, and reach Britain's shores. 

Mild weather leads to increase in illegal Channel crossings

Some 24,000 people are thought to have attempted the crossing this year, despite the pledge, and unseasonally clement weather has led to rising numbers recently. An Eritrean woman was found dead on Tuesday morning on a beach in northeastern France near Calais, presumably having attempted the crossing overnight.

Braverman has sought to champion several schemes aiming to reduce boat crossings during her two recent stints as home secretary but with limited success. 

These include a deal with Rwanda to send asylum-seekers there, allowing them to apply for and potentially receive asylum in a country the UK also deems to be safe. However, the laws are facing legal challenges in the UK, and it's unclear whether the scheme will ever be put into operation

As an interim solution, amid outrage at reports of hefty hotel bills for the government, the government leased a barge and sought to house people in a floating dormitory off the coast. The first migrants arrived last month, but almost immediately, the vessel had to be closed again, when the bacteria that causes legionnaire's disease was found in its water system. 

UK begins housing asylum-seekers on barge

The opposition Labour Party's Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said in response to the speech that Braverman had "so lost grip of Tory asylum chaos, she is targeting and scapegoating LGBT people."

Cooper called it "deeply divisive, damaging political game playing — unworthy of her office."

Braverman's trip to the US and speech also coincides with difficult EU discussions on potential migration and asylum reforms, of which Britain is no longer a part.

msh/jcg (AFP, AP, Reuters)