UK interior minister Suella Braverman on Tuesday questioned whether the United Nations Refugee Convention was “fit for our modern age” during a keynote speech at a think tank in Washington.
The address at the center-right American Enterprise Institute intended to lay out an international plan to deal with the refugee crisis, a key political issue for her struggling Conservative party back home.
Braverman called the 1951 Refugee Convention, which legally defines the term “refugee” and outlines their rights, “an incredible achievement of its age”.
“But more than 70 years on, we now live in a completely different time,” she said, citing a study that says the convention now gives at least 780 million people the potential right to move to another country.
“It is therefore incumbent upon politicians and thought leaders to ask whether the Refugee Convention, and the way it has come to be interpreted through our courts, is fit for our modern age or in need of reform,” she said.
Western countries will not be able to sustain an asylum system “if in effect simply being gay, or a woman, or fearful of discrimination in your country of origin, is sufficient to qualify for protection,” she added.
“We are living in a new world bound by outdated legal models. It’s time we acknowledge that.”
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said the convention was “the cornerstone of the international refugee protection regime and remains a life-saving instrument”.
It added that the convention “remains as relevant today as when it was adopted in providing an indispensable framework for addressing” the challenges presented by the irregular movement of refugees.
Pop icon Elton John, in a statement from his AIDS Foundation posted on Instagram, said he was “very concerned” about Braverman’s comments.
“Nearly a third of all nations class LGBTQ+ people as criminals and homosexuality is still punishable by death in 11 countries,” he said.
“Dismissing the very real danger LGBTQ+ communities face risks further legitimizing hate and violence against them.”
The UK government is currently languishing in the polls and has been struggling to stem the flow since Brexit of migrant boat crossings from mainland Europe.
Almost 24,000 people have made the trip this year, adding to a record backlog in asylum claims and heaping pressure on ministers who promised to “take back control” of UK borders after leaving the European Union.
Controversial proposals to tackle the issue include criminalizing irregular migration and sending failed asylum seekers for resettlement in Rwanda.
Braverman, a lawyer who has criticized the European Convention on Human Rights for blocking the government’s Rwanda scheme, said that a system where “people are able to travel through multiple safe countries… while they pick and choose their preferred destination to claim asylum, is absurd and unsustainable.”
But the non-profit Refugee Council said the UK should instead be “addressing the real issues in the asylum system, such as the record backlog, and providing safe routes for those in need of protection” rather than taking aim at the UN convention.
Yvette Cooper, home affairs spokeswoman for the opposition Labour Party, accused Braverman of having “given up on fixing the Tories’ asylum chaos” and “looking for anyone else to blame.”
During her visit to the United States, Braverman is due to meet Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland for talks on migration and other topics.