The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has hit back at UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s highly controversial comments on the international asylum system.
Braverman faced heavy backlash this week when she publicly criticised the 1951 refugee convention, claiming it was no longer fit for purpose.
Elsewhere in her speech, given at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, Braverman claimed that being discriminated against for being LGBTQ+ or a woman is not enough of a reason to qualify for asylum.
“Let me be clear, there are vast swathes of the world where it is extremely difficult to be gay, or to be a woman,” Braverman said in her speech on Tuesday (26 September).
“Where individuals are being persecuted, it is right that we offer sanctuary. But 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.”
Currently, it is illegal to be LGBTQ+ in 64 UN member states.
Braverman also suggested that the UK government would do “whatever is required” to tackle the issue of migrants illegally arriving, even if it meant leaving the convention.
In a rare public statement, the UNHCR responded to Braverman’s comments and defended the 1951 refugee convention.
“The need is not for reform or more restrictive interpretation, but for stronger and more consistent application of the convention and its underlying principle of responsibility-sharing,” a statement from the agency read, per BBC News.
“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,” the statement read.
The statement also made a pointed reference to the UK’s sky-high backlog of asylum claims.
Just last month, the Home Office released statistics that revealed a record-high number of asylum seekers, with 175,000 applications waiting to be decided on.
“An appropriate response to the increase in arrivals and to the UK’s current asylum backlog would include strengthening and expediting decision-making procedures,” the UNHCR suggested.
Braverman has also been condemned by LGBTQ+ asylum charity Micro Rainbow, who accused the Home Secretary of using LGBTQ+ people as scapegoats.
“LGBTQI people often face death, imprisonment, and violence. When they come to the UK to seek safety, they have to go through an asylum system that is re-traumatising and dehumanising. In addition, the standard of proof is very high,” founder and chief executive Sebastian Rocca told PinkNews.
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“The system, as it is, is incredibly difficult. These comments seek to scapegoat migrants and LGBTQI people for political gain once again.”
The Labour party has also lambasted Braverman’s comments.
“In many countries, persecution of LGBTQ+ people is rife, while discriminatory laws mean they face prison or even the death penalty simply for being themselves,” said Nadia Whittome, the Labour MP for Nottingham East.
“Those fleeing to the UK are already put through dehumanising ‘tests’ to prove their identity and are still regularly disbelieved by the Home Office. Braverman encouraging the international community to turn its back on LGBTQ+ refugees increases the risk that people are sent to their deaths.”
There has also been backlash from Braverman’s own party following the speech.
Conservative member of the London Assembly Andrew Boff told BBC News that Braverman was “victim-blaming” to distract from the “appalling backlog of asylum claims.”
Another Conservative MP, who wished to remain anonymous, noted that unless Prime Minister Rishi Sunak “gets rid” of Braverman, there was a danger it “reflects poorly on him.”
Downing Street confirmed to the national broadcaster that it had signed off on Braverman’s speech.