The UK could be seen to be turning its back on those in need in a “direct affront” to human rights, charities said after the Home Secretary appeared to suggest that fearing discrimination for being gay or a woman should not be enough to qualify for asylum in the UK.
Suella Braverman’s comments, in a speech on migration in the United States, have prompted strong criticism from campaigners, while the United Nations’ refugee agency rejected her call for the definition of who qualifies for protection to be “tightened”.
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 described the “interpretive shift away from ‘persecution’, in favour of something more akin to a definition of ‘discrimination’, as well as a “similar shift away from a ‘well-founded fear’ toward a ‘credible’ or ‘plausible fear'”.
The Home Secretary said the consequences of these shifts had been to expand the number of people who might qualify for asylum “and to lower the threshold for doing so”.
She went on: “Let me be clear, there are vast swathes of the world where it is extremely difficult to be gay, or to be a woman.
“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.”
But the UNHCR, which released a statement shortly after her speech, said there is no need for reform “or more restrictive interpretation, but for stronger and more consistent application of the convention and its underlying principle of responsibility-sharing”.
The refugee agency said the Refugee Convention “remains as relevant today as when it was adopted”, and 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.”
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”.
Earlier, Home Office minister Chris Philp argued that some people are falsely claiming to be persecuted, saying that “some people claim to be gay when they’re not”.
He told Times Radio: “When I was immigration minister I came across a number of cases when people had claimed to be gay, produced photographs of them and a sort of same-sex partner and it turned out on further investigation it was a sibling, it wasn’t a same-sex partner at all.”
But Stonewall described such comments as “unhelpful and unsound when viewed alongside statistics which clearly show that the majority of claims are valid and made by those who are at serious risk of violence”.
The group called for “global leadership” from the UK, “not a race to the bottom and turning our back on LGBTQ+ people in some of the world’s most hostile contexts”.
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.”