Suella Braverman's anti-refugee campaign may lead to bonfire of everyone's basic human rights – Laura Waddell

The Conservatives appear to be getting ready to quit the European Convention on Human Rights so they can pursue policies like the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda

Can you imagine a less convincing welcome to the UK than one uttered by current Home Secretary Suella Braverman? The wife of a friend, upon gaining British citizenship recently, received such a video to commemorate the occasion. A congratulations message that might put off those considering applying were it to be sent at the start of the process, rather than at its conclusion.

This week Braverman made headlines from her speaking appearances in America. On Tuesday, addressing the American Enterprise Institute, she suggested changes should be made to the United Nations’ refugee convention, notably, that being a woman or being gay shouldn’t be enough to qualify for protection. Why the humanity of these groups makes them less deserving than others, she didn’t much elaborate on, the message intended for an audience likely already sympathetic to the idea.

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The Home Secretary’s words were denounced by UNHCR, the refugee agency of the United Nations, which defended the 1951 Refugee Convention, notably created in response to Jews and vulnerable minorities fleeing Naziism, as “a life-saving instrument”. Pushing for a stronger and more consistent application of the convention, rather than restricting it as the Home Secretary suggested, the statement pointedly underlined the convention’s “underlying principle of responsibility-sharing”.

Interestingly, a page on the UNHCR’s website about asylum in the UK counters common myths such as the suggestion that the UK has more asylum-seekers than most countries. “No, it does not” – outnumbered in Europe by applicants to Germany and France. For a much-needed wider picture, the UNHCR points out that “the vast majority of refugees globally – four out of five – stay in their region of displacement, and consequently are hosted by developing countries”. Turkey hosts the highest number of refugees with 3.7 million, followed by Colombia with 1.7 million. The fearmongering imagery of huge hordes of people from all over the world heading straight for Britain is not reflective of reality.

Braverman’s words were also criticised by a number of charities, among them Amnesty International UK, whose chief executive Sacha Deshmukh said: “What urgently needs to be addressed on the world stage is the glaring inequality of countries sharing responsibility for refugees, a matter in which the UK is severely lagging. Instead of making inflammatory speeches decrying the rights of people fleeing persecution and tyranny, Suella Braverman should focus on creating a functioning UK asylum system that tackles the massive backlog her policies have created, so as to be able to meet the limited refugee responsibilities that fall to the UK.” Indeed, Home Office numbers released in August revealed a record high of more than 175,000 asylum applicants waiting for an initial decision. Sunak has pledged the backlog will be cleared by the end of the year, but as time passes, there are doubts.

Braverman also repeated her previous criticisms of multiculturalism. Speaking in May of this year at the National Conservatism conference, she decried “identity politics”. But wasn’t she happy to pick out specific, particular identities while addressing her audience on the American right? Noting the meat thrown by Braverman to culture war vultures, the UNHCR statement continued: “Where individuals are at risk of persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, it is crucial that they are able to seek safety and protection.” In 2023, the UK Government has to be reminded by an external agency of its commitment to the human rights of women and gays.

Home Office statistics on asylum applications reveal there were 415 asylum applications lodged in the UK in 2021 where lesbian, gay or bisexual sexual orientation formed part of the basis for the claim, representing one per cent of all asylum applications, a smaller proportion than Braverman’s tone of urgency might have indicated. Here in the UK, anti-LGBT hate crime has seen a sharp rise in recent years, making the Home Secretary’s targeting of the demographic particularly egregious. Rather than merely cavalier, sewing seeds of distrust is inflammatory and cruel.

Originally helmed by Priti Patel, Braverman has inherited the demented UK Government plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. After that plan was deemed unlawful by the courts, Braverman vowed to do “whatever it takes” to proceed. At that time she told BBC Radio 4’s Today that “no one’s talking about leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) right now”, which suggests it’s not off the table.

Since Brexit, pressure on the matter has been building from the Conservative right (which got them, after all, a result from Cameron) – and the next election will be a tough one for aspirant Tories. Public attitudes have shifted in the UK towards immigration in recent times; there seems to be more general cognisance about how migrant labour fills gaps in the workforce. After a summer of strikes and public services like the NHS struggling massively, and a country asking itself what it actually got in return for Brexit, the Tories are casting around for a scapegoat to direct dissatisfaction toward, fixing upon vulnerable groups some are all too willing to vilify.

Should the ECHR become a bone, tossed to barking dogs salivating for punitive policy, UK citizens would lose our government’s commitment to its declaration of our right to life, freedom from slavery and torture, the right to a free trial, freedom of expression, the right to participate in elections, the right to education… and much more. Beneath the distraction of xenophobia, the rights of UK citizens thrown away to appease the Tory right sums up the bent of British politics this decade.



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