On 26 September, home secretary Suella Braverman gave a hate-fuelled tirade on the subject of asylum seekers as part of a keynote speech in Washington. In it, she stated that the United Nations Refugee Convention was not “fit for our modern age”.
The address, which took place at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, was billed as intending to lay out an international plan to deal with the refugee crisis. However, Braverman’s answer appears to boil down to simply redefining what a refugee is.
Braverman: ‘A completely different time’
The 1951 Refugee Convention legally defines the term “refugee” and outlines their rights. Braverman called it “an incredible achievement of its age”. However, she went on to cite a deeply questionable study stating that the convention now gives at least 780 million people the potential right to move to another country.
She said that it is:
incumbent upon politicians and thought leaders to ask whether the Refugee Convention, and the way it has come to be interpreted through our courts, is fit for our modern age or in need of reform.
Regarding this perceived lack of reform, she stated that:
The first [reason] is simply that it is very hard to renegotiate these instruments. The second is much more cynical. The fear of being branded a racist or illiberal. Any attempt to reform the refugee convention will see you smeared as anti-refugee
‘Very real danger’
She also added that Western countries 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.
We are living in a new world bound by outdated legal models. It’s time we acknowledge that.
The problem being, of course, that fearing discrimination should be sufficient grounds to qualify for protection. In a world with any measure of human decency, nobody should have been able to question that simple maxim without choking on their words. Unfortunately, I’m given to doubt that Braverman and her cronies have a shred of human decency to share between them.
In a statement as part of his role at the AIDS Foundation, musician Elton John said he was “very concerned” about Braverman’s comments. He highlighted the fact that “simply being gay”, as the home secretary put it, was clearly cause to be fearful:
Nearly a third of all nations class LGBTQ+ people as criminals and homosexuality is still punishable by death in 11 countries.
Dismissing the very real danger LGBTQ+ communities face risks further legitimizing hate and violence against them.
Colonialism and the refugee crisis
Of course, this isn’t even to mention the UK’s role in the criminalisation of homosexuality in these countries. As the Migrant Rights Network put it:
Sadly, out of the 69 countries where homosexuality is criminalised today, 36 of them are former British colonies. Many commonwealth African nations, for instance, still hold onto the colonial-era legislation and attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community.
Likewise, another key and growing driver of refugee movement is the ever-worsening climate crisis. The non-profit Climate Refugees stated that:
Recent trends indicate more internal displacement due to climate-related disasters than conflict, where in fact, of the 30.6 million people displaced across 135 countries in 2017, 60 percent were as a direct result of disasters.
And, in turn, those climate disasters are driven by the Global North and its energy colonialism. As the Canary’s Hannah Sharland documented:
industrialised colonial nations have belched out the bulk of emissions that have fueled climate warming. However, the impacts of super-charged extreme weather have disproportionately hit the less industrialised nations least responsible.
But far from acknowledging the dire issue of the refugee crisis – let alone taking ownership of the role that the UK and the rest of the Global North played in it – Braverman has an entirely different solution. She’s looking away.
The solution? Ignore the problem
Braverman has previously criticised the European Convention on Human Rights for blocking the Tory government’s Rwanda scheme. Hitting back, the non-profit Refugee Council said that – rather than taking aim at the UN convention – the UK should be:
addressing the real issues in the asylum system, such as the record backlog, and providing safe routes for those in need of protection.
Similarly, Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, accused Braverman of having “given up on fixing the Tories’ asylum chaos” and “looking for anyone else to blame”.
This attitude typifies Tory responses to social issues across the board. Rather than working to find a solution, they change definitions in order to sweep a problem under the rug. From plans to redefine child poverty, to changing targets for cancer care in order to reduce damning figures, to funneling foreign aid into investment portfolios, the Conservatives are no stranger to moving goalposts.
So, simply defining a refugee more narrowly as someone immediately at risk of violence or death is barely even a stretch.
The Guardian went as far as reporting that:
Asked after the speech whether the UK would consider leaving the convention if changes were not delivered, Braverman said the government would do “whatever is required” to tackle the issue of migrants arriving via unauthorised routes.
To state this simply, the home secretary appears to prefer that the UK removes itself entirely from the Refugee Convention, rather than facing up to the fact that refugees are human beings in need of help.
Truly, I wish I could say that I was shocked – or even surprised. Unfortunately at this point, Braverman is beyond the point where her naked cruelty is anything more than an everyday occurrence.
Featured image via the Guardian/screengrab
Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse