U.K. Home Secretary Calls For Major Reforms to International Asylum Law
FAIR Take | October 2023
On September 26, the United Kingdom’s Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, delivered an important keynote address in which she challenged the relevance of 20th-century international asylum agreements in the 21st century. Ms. Braverman delivered her comments as part of a panel on “UK-US Security Priorities for the 21st Century” at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C.
Like all Western nations, the United Kingdom has faced out-of-control illegal migration and large-scale asylum abuse. In her presentation, Braverman astutely laid out the multiple, interrelated problems plaguing the institution of asylum as it currently exists and called for reform. “The status quo,” the British Home Secretary argued, “where people are able to travel through multiple safe countries, and even reside in safe countries for years, while they pick and choose their preferred destination to claim asylum is absurd and unsustainable.”
Asylum, like so many other aspects of modern-day immigration policy, has suffered from ongoing mission creep. It was originally devised and intended for a sustainably limited number of bona fide victims of persecution. Increasingly, it is being abused by vast numbers of economic migrants who view requesting asylum as a way to obtain residence in the West.
Ms. Braverman pointed out how some regimes have weaponized illegal migration to undermine Western countries. One example is Belarus employing “asylum seekers” to wage hybrid warfare against Poland by intentionally flying in migrants from the Middle East and encouraging them to rush the border. Another recent case is Turkey opening up its borders or threatening to allow mass migration into Europe if its demands for money are not met. She also noted how some of the fake “asylum-seekers” are involved in crime, prostitution, gang activity, drugs, and other pathologies.
The historical basis for the modern asylum framework is the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951. The treaty laid out the grounds for receiving both asylum and refugee status as having a “well-founded fear of being persecuted [in one’s homeland] for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
The original intent of the convention set a strict time limit of “events occurring before 1 January 1951” and geographical framework, which allowed the signatory nations to interpret its geographical scope as either “events occurring in Europe” or “events occurring in Europe or elsewhere.” What the signatories had in mind was the murderous persecution meted out by the German National Socialists or the Soviet communists at the time.
However, in 1967, with the singing of the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, both the geographical and time restrictions were removed. Importantly, President Harry Truman refused to sign the 1951 convention because he viewed it as a potential threat to U.S. sovereignty. However, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the U.S. onto the 1967 Protocol, which eventually became part of the Refugee Act of 1980.
Regarding the 1951 Convention Secretary Braverman stated, “It was an incredible achievement of its age.” But she emphasized that “more than 70 years on, we now live in a completely different time.” The 1967 follow-up protocol can be viewed as opening up the floodgates, she said, but the UK Home Secretary also stressed that the current mass asylum abuse crisis can be laid at the feet of an “interpretive shift away from persecution, in favor of something more akin to a definition of discrimination,” in addition to a related and “similar shift away from a well-founded fear towards a credible or plausible fear.”
By lowering the bar and making asylum easier to apply for and obtain has encouraged millions of foreign nationals to use asylum to get into the West. This has gone hand-in-hand with far-reaching interpretations of the “particular social group” category, which most easily lends itself to abuse due to its amorphous, quite open-ended nature. There have been constant attempts to stretch it to increase the number of individuals qualifying for asylum, for example, to include victims of gang or domestic violence.
Secretary Braverman described the current international asylum system as unsustainable. When the convention was originally signed in 1951, it applied to just 2 million people who were in need of genuine protection. By contrast, under current interpretations, it could confer a notional right to asylum to approximately 780 million people globally: more than double the population of the U.S. Ms. Braverman was blunt: “The global asylum framework is a promissory note that the West cannot fulfill. We have created a system of almost infinite supply, incentivizing millions of people to try their luck, knowing full well that we have no capacity to meet more than a fraction of the demand.”
Braverman called for reform of the entire asylum system and the convention upon which it is based. Her proposals require that asylum-seekers take the legal route and genuine asylum-seekers remain in safe third countries. She stated, “Nobody entering the U.K. by boat from France is fleeing imminent peril. None of them have good cause for illegal entry. The vast majority have passed through multiple other safe countries, and in some instances, have resided in safe countries for several years. There is a strong argument that they should cease to be treated as refugees during their onward movement.”
Braverman recognized that reforming any treaties or conventions at the level of the UN will be extremely difficult. If and until that can be done, she said, sovereign nation-states should step in with their own measures that deter illegal migration and other abuses of refugee and asylum law. She even warned that failing to act could threaten the very stabilities of countries. “Just as it is a basic rule of history that nations which cannot defend their borders will not long survive, it is a basic rule of politics that political systems which cannot control their borders will not maintain the consent of the people, and thus not long endure.”
While granting asylum to those who are truly persecuted in their homelands is a noble policy, it must be subject to common-sense, rational limitations. Unfortunately, the current system encourages illegal migration and drives the humanitarian disaster that stems from it. This ranges from migrants dying or being raped along the journey to citizens in destination countries being hurt by asylum-abusing criminals or being forced to bear additional fiscal costs associated with fraudulent “asylum-seekers.” Braverman made the key point that mass asylum abuse actually undermines genuine asylum-seekers for “the ease with which this system can be gamed by those that don’t really need it means it is the most vulnerable, women, children, those without the money to pay people smugglers, and those not fit enough to make arduous journeys, that lose out.”