Suella Braverman’s speech this week was the latest of a series of cruel and inhumane attacks on people who are forced to move in order to seek safety. In a bizarre and hateful speech, the Home Secretary made a number of wild denouncements of the Refugee Convention, in a transparent and cynical attempt to use the crisis faced by refugees to grab headlines.
Braverman spoke about the need to rewrite the Refugee Convention, evidenced by a number of lies about how the international and domestic refugee systems actually work. Braverman told her audience that the threshold for receiving protection has shifted from ‘persecution’ to ‘discrimination’ and that a ‘well-founded fear’ has shifted ‘toward a ‘credible’ or ‘plausible” fear’. Anybody who works in the asylum system, including Home Office Presenting Officers, government lawyers, judges, asylum seekers and legal representatives, will unanimously tell you this is not true. Asylum applications and appeals are complex matters requiring individuals to demonstrate that they meet a high threshold, often presenting expert evidence of the particular risks that pertain to their individual circumstances. Braverman’s fictitious claims recall Theresa May’s false stories about a man who fought deportation on the basis of his relationship with his cat.
She reserved a particular attack for those who claim asylum on the basis of sexuality or gender. She decried ‘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.’ Put another way: if our asylum system were entirely different from how it is in reality, it would not be sustainable. Anyone who works in this area will tell you that the imaginary asylum system the Home Secretary is describing bears no similarity to our own, and LGBTQI+ people must not only convince sceptical government decision-makers of their sexuality but also evidence that they face a well-founded fear of persecution to qualify for refugee protection in the UK. In 2022, only 1.5% of asylum claims relied upon sexual orientation as part of the basis for the claim, with the top three represented countries being places where homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment or death. The Home Secretary did not care to recall that many of the states that criminalise homosexuality began doing so under British colonial rule. These laws are a relic of empire and the UK has a responsibility to protect those they punish.
There are plenty of relevant facts that the Home Secretary could have drawn attention to – such as the fact that under her tenure as Home Secretary, the asylum backlog has reached record levels, with more people than ever being made to wait in agonising limbo for years. Or that the UK, Europe and USA take responsibility for a small proportion of refugees, with 70% of those displaced across borders remaining in a neighbouring and inevitably far poorer country. If the Home Secretary wanted to fix the problems in the asylum system and reduce financial pressures, her focus would be on processing claims, granting people leave to remain and allowing them to work whilst waiting for decisions on their claims.
For somebody claiming to be broaching ‘taboo’ issues and bringing fresh political ideas, it was surprising to see the Home Secretary repeat a succession of far-right dog whistles and conspiracy theories that we have heard many times. There was the fear-mongering about communities who live ‘parallel lives’, the ugly reference about the birth-rate of ‘foreign-born mothers’ in the UK, and a sinister warning that cultural change is ‘diluting’ what was there before (in ‘Western’ countries), until ‘eventually it will disappear’ – with more than a shade of the ethno-nationalist ‘great replacement theory’. Throw in a ‘notional’ massive number (Braverman appears to have decided that precisely 10% of the world are refugees) and this was a speech straight from the fascist playbook. It is no surprise that its only supporters appeared to come from a fringe far-right extremist party that campaigns against multiculturalism.
This type of hatred will not win. She has been attacked from all angles, including by her own party. Braverman should take note of the fact that attitudes towards immigration have become considerably more positive in recent years, and there is no appetite for this type of politics. We will continue to defend the fundamental right to claim asylum.
In May, we joined 175 organisations warning the government that their so-called ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ amounted to an effective ban on asylum. As we argued then, we all deserve to live safe from harm, and to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect. We urge politicians to reject the Home Secretary’s divisive approach and defend the Refugee Convention, a vital pillar of our universal human rights and as relevant today as it was when created in the aftermath of the second World War.