Is it time the world re-evaluated the rules on migration?

Home Secretary Suella Braverman questions whether 1951 UN Refugee Convention is 'fit for our modern age'

Illustration of Suella Braverman with globes, arrows and refugees on a boat
The UK's home secretary Suella Braverman will say that the UN convention has created 'huge incentives for illegal migration'
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Suella Braverman will call for a fundamental rewrite of the international rules governing refugees, questioning whether the UN's landmark 1951 Refugee Convention is "fit for our modern age".

The home secretary is giving a speech at a right-wing Washington DC think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, in which she will concede that the convention was an "incredible achievement" when it was signed after the Second World War, but that it has since created "huge incentives for illegal migration". 

It has led to a situation that is both "absurd and unsustainable", she will say. The legal threshold for granting protection has shifted from "persecuted" towards "something more akin to a definition of 'discrimination'", leading to increased numbers being defined as refugees. 

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

"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," Braverman will say. 

Her comments were also in stark contrast with those of Pope Francis, who said at a meeting in Marseille over the weekend that migration was not an emergency but rather "a reality of our times", said the BBC. He told the audience, which included French president Emmanuel Macron, that the situation "must be governed with wise foresight, including a European response". 

What did the papers say?

Braverman's speech is expected to reveal "further detail of Rishi Sunak's ambition to put Britain at the forefront of attempts to reset international structures for tackling ever-growing migration across the world", said The Times

It comes in the context of the UK's mounting small boats crisis and the government's attempts to circumvent the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which blocked plans to deport migrants to Rwanda.

But the remarks put her on a "collision course" with the UN High Commission for Refugees, which supported the ECHR legal challenge against the government, said The Telegraph. Braverman has "previously signalled her desire to quit [the ECHR] for the way 'politicised' and 'interventionist' judges have trampled on 'the territory of national sovereignty'". However, until now, "she has not publicly and directly taken aim at the [UN] Refugee Convention".

Her reported comments have been widely condemned by refugee charities. The Guardian said that Braverman has "drawn fire" for suggesting Britain should not grant asylum to people who are simply fearful of persecution for being gay.

But this is the "towering challenge confronting the continent", said Gavin Mortimer in The Spectator: "how to distinguish between those fleeing war and persecution, and those who simply see Europe as a way of making money, legally or illegally. Or worse, those who see it as a target."

Braverman is in the US where "just as in Britain and Europe, migration is a bitterly divisive issue", said Sky News's US correspondent Mark Stone. America's southern border is a "perfect example of an asylum system that is neither firm nor fair", he added. "On that, she will find common ground with Britain's own system."

What next?

Labour's shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has argued that by undermining international agreements Braverman makes it harder to coordinate migrant action alongside other countries.

Critics, however, point to the EU. According to the European Union Agency for Asylum, in 2021 only 34% of applications for protection in the bloc were successful. However, the European Commission said that about 80% of unsuccessful asylum seekers remain where they are, mostly because their home countries or the country from which they travelled to the EU refuse to take them back.

Given this reality, "many EU member states now prefer to reinforce their border protection to make it more difficult for anyone to enter irregularly and to apply for asylum in the first place", wrote Friedrich Püttmann, a PhD candidate at LSE's European Institute, in an article for LSE.

"The liberal reflex is to criticise such EU member states for their repressive border regimes," he concluded. However, "given that a majority of the European public wants less immigration, and that returning rejected asylum seekers is evidently difficult, there is a natural incentive for governments to act in this way".

But "between the hard line and the compassion is a reality", said Sky News' Stone. "This is a time of unprecedented migration. The movement we are seeing represents a new normal that is testing open societies globally."

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.