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UK: Campaigners denounce Braverman's comments on LGBTQ+ refugee eligibility

Home Secretary to argue that discrimination against women and gay people is insufficient grounds for refugee status
Home Secretary Suella Braverman at Downing Street on 12 September 2023 (AFP)

UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman is expected to call on world leaders to water down protections granted under the 1951 UN refugee convention for women and sexual minorities in a speech at a right-wing US think tank on Tuesday.

The convention enshrines the internationally recognised definition of the term refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”.

Persecution of women and sexual minorities is usually assessed in terms of their membership of a particular social group, according to UNHCR guidelines. 

The core principle of the convention - that of non-refoulement - asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. But Braverman will assert that case law emerging from the convention has seen a lowering of the threshold for asylum claims, so that claimants need only prove “discrimination” instead of “persecution”, arguing that the shift could expand numbers of those eligible for asylum to “unsustainable” levels.

"Let me be clear, there are vast swathes of the world where it is extremely difficult to be gay, or to be a woman," the Home Secretary is expected to say at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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“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.”

Homosexuality is criminalised in 64 countries, and could lead to the death penalty in 11 of them.  

The Home Secretary's comments may be incompatible with the Home Office's own guidelines, which state that discrimination may amount to persecution "if it led to consequences, which were of a substantially prejudicial nature for the person concerned", such as serious legal measures that affect the person's economic, social and cultural rights. 

Braverman is expected to call for reform of the convention and claim that the current rules will extend the right to claim asylum in the UK to up to 780 million people.

She will also challenge UNHCR's opposition to the UK government’s position that refugees should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach.

“Nobody entering the UK by boat from France is fleeing imminent peril. None of them have ‘good cause’ for illegal entry," according to the speech.

Threat to refugee rights 

Braverman’s comments drew fierce criticism from LGBT+ Conservatives and Labour MPs who have accused her of “dog-whistle politics”, with Andrew Boff, a Conservative London Assembly member and patron of the LGBT+ Conservative group stating that her comments “paint us an an uncaring party”.

The comments also come after the UNHCR criticised the UK government's £140m deal with Rwanda as “incompatible with the letter and spirit” of the convention, which has been the primary basis for UK refugee law

The body also opposed the Illegal Migration Bill - a piece of legislation that contravenes the country’s obligations under international and human rights law - condemning it as an “asylum ban” as it would effectively extinguish the right to seek refugee protection in the UK for those who arrive irregularly.

In response to the text of the speech, Charlotte Khan of refugee charity Care4Calais warned that Braverman’s approach will deny refugees the rights enshrined in international law. 

“If world leaders follow Braverman’s path and turn their backs on our collective obligations under international refugee law, there will still be refugees but they will be denied their right to be safe,” Khan told Middle East Eye.

Meanwhile, independent migration policy researcher Zoe Gardiner said that Braverman’s comments are a “transparent bid to draw the Tory party further right under her future leadership of it”.

'Absolute chaos'

"Presiding over absolute chaos in her brief as Home Secretary, with both the immigration system and the police in crisis under her watch, she's run off to find hard-right allies in the states,” Gardiner told MEE. “All of this would be bad enough, but to do it off the backs of persecuted LGBT+ people around the world is as low as it gets."

The limbo faced by LGBTQ+ claimants in the UK has recently been linked to the suicide of a queer Omani woman

Rima al-Badi, a 21-year-old from Oman, took her own life earlier this month after spending more than a year in a hotel waiting for the Home Office to make a decision on her asylum claim.

Braverman’s recent comments indicate that barriers already faced by LGBTQ+ asylum claimants fleeing persecution could harden.

The introduction of the Nationality and Borders bill is expected to lead to an increased burden of proof on asylum claimants and a sharp reduction in the time allowed to produce this evidence.

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