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Home Secretary Suella Braverman has been hit with criticism by human rights groups after a controversial speech in which she suggested that fearing discrimination for being gay or a woman should not be enough to qualify for asylum in the UK.
Ms Braverman’s comments, in a speech on migration in the United States, earned strong criticism from campaigners, while the United Nations’ refugee agency rejected her call for the definition of who qualifies for protection to be “tightened".
She said millions of asylum seekers are being incentivised to “try their luck” in a system that poses an existential threat to the West if United Nations’ Refugee Convention is not reformed.
She also refused to rule out the UK leaving the global refugee charter if it remains unchanged, as she warned of the “existential threat” of uncontrolled migration.
Campaigners labelled the speech “inflammatory” and “xenophobic”.
Calling for the “definition of who qualifies for protection” under refugee rules to be rewritten, she said the threshold for asylum had steadily been lowered since the signing of the UN pact, which is backed by 149 states, more than 70 years ago.
Ms Braverman claimed there had been a change over the years which has seen more people enter the system as the bar for qualification has lowered.
She said an “interpretive shift” had widened the definition of a potential refugee to someone who had only “’credible’ or ‘plausible fear’" of discrimination.
“Let me be clear, there are vast swathes of the world where it is extremely difficult to be gay, or to be a woman,” she said.
“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."
Leanne MacMillan, from LGBT+ charity Stonewall, described Ms Braverman’s words as “incredibly concerning".
She said: "Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, it has been well settled for decades that women and LGBTQ+ people who are persecuted and need to flee their home countries are to be protected by the international community."
She said it is an "indisputable fact" that LGBTQ+ people continue to face persecution across the world and called for "compassion and support from our political leaders and affirmation that they abide by international law".
The criticism was echoed by Amnesty International, which accused her of railing against the international treaties in a bid to deflect from the Government’s record on processing asylum claims.
Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s Chief Executive, said Ms Braverman’s speech did not “alter the harsh realities that cause people from countries such as Sudan, Afghanistan and Iran to flee from conflict and persecution.”
“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,” he said.
“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.”
The UN’s refugee agency UNHCR also rejected Ms Braverman’s calls, saying the Refugee Convention "remains as relevant today as when it was adopted".
It added: "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."
ActionAid UK said seeking asylum is the only lifeline left for the many women and girls its deals with who are fleeing persecution.
The charity’s chief executive Halima Begum said: "Denying this fundamental right is not just a policy choice; it’s a direct affront to gender equality and human rights.
“Upholding the humanitarian duty to provide refuge and safety to women in need is not just an option; it’s an imperative.”
Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, said: “Suella Braverman targeting LGBT+ people persecuted for being who they are is a shameful new low.
“International conventions aren’t to blame for Tory incompetence.”
While Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, called the speech “deeply divisive, damaging political game playing – unworthy of her office. Instead of blaming people persecuted in places like Uganda for who they love, she should sort chaos at home.”
Addressing the American Enterprise Institute, Ms Braverman declared that no migrant crossing the Channel to Britain was in “imminent peril” and accused some asylum seekers of “shopping around” for their “preferred destination” and suggested those arriving from a safe country should “cease to be treated as refugees”.
Braverman declared that multiculturalism had "failed" in Europe and threatens social cohesion in the nation state.
Setting out the "civic argument" against illegal migration, Ms Braverman said: "Uncontrolled immigration, inadequate integration and a misguided dogma of multiculturalism have proven a toxic combination for Europe over the last few decades.
"Multiculturalism makes no demands of the incomer to integrate. It has failed because it allowed people to come to our society and live parallel lives in it. They could be in the society but not of the society.
"And, in extreme cases, they could pursue lives aimed at undermining the stability and threatening the security of society."
Despite the call for global reform, Ms Braverman’s speech is likely to be seen by many as partly intended for a domestic audience.
Almost 24,000 migrants have arrived into the UK via small boats since January, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak making a pledge to “stop the boats” a centrepiece of his Government’s priorities.