Suella Braverman has sparked a furious backlash over “nasty” comments in which she claimed that fearing persecution over being gay or a woman is not enough to claim asylum.
The home secretary used a speech in the US on Tuesday to say that “simply being gay, or a woman” should not by itself be enough to gain protection under international refugee laws.
LGBT+ and human rights campaigners dubbed Ms Braverman a “dangerous fool”, while Conservative moderates and opposition parties accused her of pushing “dog whistle” politics to boost her leadership credentials with the Tory right.
Ms Braverman called on world leaders to make major changes to the UN Refugee Convention, arguing it had become far too generous to migrants, during her address to a right-wing think tank in Washington DC.
The home secretary said: “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.”
She added: “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.”
The cabinet minister also said multiculturalism had “failed”, claimed uncontrolled immingration was an “exsitential challenge” for the West and argued that fears of being branded “racist” was preventing leaders from reforming global asylum policy.
Andrew Boff – a leading Tory London Assembly member who is patron of the LGBT+ Conservatives group – told The Independent that Ms Braverman was indulging in “dog whistle” politics to appeal to the right.
Mr Boff said: “All this chitter chatter is not government policy – it’s just dog whistling to a section of people who feel that we are being flooded with gays. It’s just ridiculous.”
“What Suella should be doing is sorting out the heap of crap at the Home Office. It’s not good trying to distract from failure at the Home Office by trying to indicate that this is a problem with the victims of persecution.”
A senior Tory MP told The Independent: “It’s a tone deaf cynically manufactured piece of nonsense. Rather than seeking scapegoats left, right and centre, she should get on with her job. Unfortunately, it seems she isn’t up to it.”
The Conservative added that “everything she does” is aimed at being the flagbearer for the Tory right in a leadership contest if the party loses next year’s general election.
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw also told The Independent: “Everything Braverman says is about a future leadership election. It’s a classic dog whistle to the Tory membership who are increasingly right wing. It’s shameful that we have a home secretary that’s prepared to play politics with people’s lives.”
SNP MP Stewart McDonald said gay asylum seekers and refugees make up a “tiny minority” of asylum cases. “So to single them out in her campaign to be the next Tory leader, Braverman yet again displays appalling, nasty and cruel instincts that are at odds with common decency,” he tweeted.
A spokesperson for the Rainbow Migration charity said: “We are appalled to hear that the home secretary is questioning the legitimacy of LGBTQI+ people claiming asylum in the UK.”
They added: “The government’s own statistics suggest that only 2 per cent of all asylum claims in 2022 included sexual orientation as a reason for needing protection.”
A spokesperson for the Women 4 Refugee Women said Ms Braverman’s comments were “absurd” since members of the LGBT+ community “face specific and particular harms” based on their gender or sexuality.
Amnesty International UK’s Steve Valdez-Symonds called Ms Braverman a “dangerous fool who is doing enormous harm at huge cost”. He said “bad-mouthing international agreements” would not “change the realities that cause people to flee from persecution”.
Leanne MacMillan, director of global programmes at Stonewall, said Ms Braverman’s remarks were “incredibly concerning”. She said: “The implication that LGBTQ+ and women asylum seekers are using their identities to falsely claim asylum en masse is unhelpful and unsound.”
Home Office minister Chris Philp backed up Ms Braverman by saying some people are falsely claiming to be persecuted, telling Times Radio that “some people claim to be gay when they’re not”.
Ms Braverman has previously taken aim at the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – claiming it is thwarting the efforts of Rishi Sunak’s government to send asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda, another measure designed to reduce the number of small boat crossings.
The home secretary used her address at the American Enterprise Institute to suggest reform of the UN Refugee Convention.
Ms Braverman said the landmark international protocol of 1951 – the basis of the global asylum system which has been signed by 146 countries – should be replaced with something “fit for our modern age”.
She also argued that Channel migrants should no longer be treated as refugees. “Nobody entering the UK by boat from France is fleeing imminent peril ... None of them have good cause for illegal entry.”
“What we have seen in practice is an interpretative shift away from persecution in favour of something more akin to a definition of discrimination,” she said. “The practical consequence has been expanding the number of those who qualify for asylum and lower the threshold for doing so.”
In a wide-ranging speech she claimed multiculturalism had “failed” and argued that uncontrolled and illegal migration was “an existential challenge for the political and cultural institutions of the West”.
Ms Braverman also said the small boats crisis in the English Channel is threatening national security. She told the US audience there were increasing signs of illegal migration being exploited by hostile states such as Russia and its mercenary Wagner group.
Mr Sunak’s home secretary said fears of being branded “racist” or “illiberal” was hindering states from reforming the global asylum rules, arguing that concerns over immigration do not make one an “idiot” or a “bigot”.
Ms Braverman also said Britons are angered by people “jumping the queue” to come to the UK – which she contrasted with her parents migrating to the UK “lawfully”. She added that it was “no betrayal of my parents’ story to say that immigration must be controlled.”
Questioning her focus, senior Tory MP David Davis told The Independent: “If our primary strategy is to try to approach the UN, it will take a long time. Wouldn’t it be quicker to focus on our own methods of dealing with the problem?”
The former cabinet minister added: “The Home Office is just not very good. If the Home Office was more capable in managing our immigration policy … we might not be facing these difficulties.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “The home secretary has so totally lost grip of the asylum crisis at home, that she is choosing to target and lash out at LGBT+ people to distract from her failures instead.”