Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

‘The UN Refugee Convention Should Be Reformed – But Not in the Way Suella Braverman Thinks’

The UK could show global leadership by pushing for the international community to broaden its definition of refugees, writes former British diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

Home Secretary Suella Braverman gave a speech on immigration at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington on 26 September 2023. Photo: Kevin Wolf/AP/Alamy

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, the Home Secretary argued that the current global asylum system incentivised “uncontrolled, illegal immigration” and posed an “existential challenge” to developed nations, especially in the West.

She noted the ever-increasing numbers of those seeking asylum, including those coming to Europe across the Mediterranean, crossing the English Channel in small boats, or entering America across its border with Mexico, and suggested that the vast majority are not genuine refugees fleeing persecution, but merely economic migrants seeking a better life.  

In Suella Braverman’s view, such “uncontrolled, illegal immigration” undermines the nation state; presents unsustainable costs to host countries; poses security threats in the form of increased criminality, and risks weakening democracy, as voters grow frustrated with their leaders’ inability to control borders; and create conditions for more extreme politics.   

She argued that the international community needs to consider whether the current international refugee framework, governed by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, is still fit for purpose. In her view, there is a case for narrowing the criteria for refugee status and tightening human rights laws to prevent abuse of the system. She also suggested that asylum seekers should be obliged to seek refuge in the first safe country they arrive in, rather than being allowed to “pick and choose” their preferred destination. “No one coming from France is in danger,” she said. 

Pending reform of the international system, nation states have had no option but to take matters into their own hands, Braverman posited. This meant pursuing their own bilateral solutions – such as the UK’s Rwanda scheme, and new laws preventing anyone who arrives in the UK ‘illegally’ from ever being eligible for asylum. 

I might have been more sympathetic to her arguments, because I agree there is a genuine challenge over rising migration numbers, for some of the reasons she mentioned – had she not overlaid her case with some overt dog-whistle elements. These included going out of her way to highlight the number of migrants coming from sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East and North Africa.

I also disliked her pandering to the ‘anti-woke’ crowd by suggesting that gay people and women should not be eligible for asylum, even if they come from a country where gay people and women are systematically mistreated.   

‘Britain and the US: How the Oligarchies Posing as Democracies have Been Exposed’

Something even worse than government run by politicians is government run by politics, writes AC Grayling

But my real problem was that her speech was all about deterring migrants – without any suggestions about how to address the push factors behind mass migration.

Migration is not simply going to go away, no matter how much Braverman wishes it, and no matter how tough countries in the West become, until we get better at tackling the reasons why so many migrants leave their homes in the first place.    

The vast majority of people on the move are doing so not because they’ve seen videos of people lounging around in hotels, receiving government hand-outs, and living a life of ease in the West, as Braverman would have us believe. They have left because life in their home country has become so intolerable that they are willing to risk life and limb, and pay vast amounts of money, to come to somewhere better.  

Braverman might dismiss such people as mere economic migrants “picking and choosing” a better way of life. But economic desperation is a form of life and death for many people.

Living in a conflict-ridden society is a matter of life and death. Living in a country dominated by drug gangs can be a matter of life and death – particularly for young men, at risk of being swept up by gang violence. Living in a country where crops are decimated by climate change, and homes are swept away by natural disasters, is a matter of life and death for many people, who face destitution if they stay where they are.  

Braverman expressed little compassion for the circumstances which might compel people to leave their homes.    

She also failed to acknowledge that the vast majority of displaced people stay in or near their country of origin, and that the countries hosting the largest number of refugees are some of the poorest countries in the world. The numbers reaching the West are in fact a fraction of the global total.  

According to UNHCR’s latest figures, low and middle-income countries host 76% of the world’s refugees. The least developed countries provide asylum to 20% of the total. The biggest host countries are Turkey (3.6 million); Iran (3.4 million); Colombia (2.5 million); Germany (2.1 million); and Pakistan (1.7 million). By contrast, in the UK – one of the richest countries in the world – there are fewer than 250,000 refugees.  

These are inconvenient facts, which Braverman chose not to mention. Instead, she made the ludicrous argument that, as 4% of people in a recent poll said they liked the UK, this could translate into more than 40 million people seeking to come here. I like Italy, but it doesn’t mean I will go to live there.  

Finally, her suggestion that refugees should claim asylum in the first safe country they come to is a disingenuous ploy, because it makes it well-nigh impossible for anyone to claim haven in the UK – because they either have to travel through Europe to reach us, or arrive by air, which they cannot do without a visa. There are in fact almost no safe and legal routes for refugees to reach the UK.  

I agree that we need to handle mass migration better – but not in the way Braverman suggests.

Not by tightening up the criteria for refugee status. Not by making conditions miserable for migrants if they get here. Not by seeking to export them to third countries. Not by treating them as criminals.   

Don’t miss a story

The UK could show global leadership by pushing for the international community to broaden its definition of refugees, explicitly to include internally displaced people and economic migrants, and to push for more effective collective ways to address migration.

This could include more support from rich countries like the UK, bearing a relatively light burden, to poorer countries hosting the most displaced people; more burden-sharing within continents, to avoid any one country shouldering a disproportionate number of asylum seekers; and widening the range of protection options, to include temporary measures; as well as more effective collective action to tackle the push factors driving migration, including poverty, conflict, and climate change. 

These measures would not stop all migration to the UK – and they would require the UK to step up internationally, rather than try to retreat behind its borders. They would require the UK to acknowledge that migration is a global issue and that many other countries bear a much larger burden than ourselves. They would require us to work more cooperatively with our European neighbours and to open up more safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to reach the UK as part of a regional approach.  

The UK Government could also do a better job of explaining the global challenge to voters, putting the numbers reaching the UK in context and trying to dispel any local hostility, rather than riling it up. They could invest more in public services, both to support and help integrate the refugees, and to ensure local communities are not negatively affected by their presence.   

These ideas might at least establish better control over the flow of migrants into the UK, if not the absolute numbers, help them settle quicker, and reduce local resentment towards them.

But then again, perhaps this is not Suella Braverman’s true aim. Judging by her narrow presentation of the challenges and options, I suspect her motives may have less to do with finding genuine, sustainable solutions, and more to do with domestic politics. If so, she chose the wrong audience – the US is a nation instinctively sympathetic to immigration, despite its own problems across the southern border. The applause for her speech was noticeably lukewarm.    

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity

This article was filed under
, , , , ,