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Reconsidering the UN Refugee Convention: examining Suella Braverman's perspective

By Vince Hooper - posted Thursday, 26 October 2023

In the realm of international policy and humanitarian law, the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 has long been regarded as a cornerstone of protection for individuals fleeing persecution and violence. However, recent remarks by UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman have ignited a crucial debate about its relevance in our contemporary world. Braverman's speech to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC challenges the convention's current interpretation, prompting us to reevaluate the treaty's pros and cons.

The UN's refugee agency has criticized Suella Braverman for her claim that world leaders are reluctant to reform human rights laws due to fear of being labeled "racist or illiberal". Braverman, the UK's home secretary, made this statement during a speech in the United States. The UNHCR issued a statement defending the 1951 refugee convention and questioning Braverman's distinction between persecution and discrimination. They called for a more consistent application of the convention and criticized the UK's asylum backlog of 175 000. Refugee charities challenged Braverman's claims, and some accused her of engaging in "dog-whistle" politics. While Braverman did not call for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), she expressed support for human rights convention reform. Whilst some observers suggested that her speech was a political maneuver to gain support before the Conservative party's annual conference, held recently.

The UN Refugee Convention was established in the aftermath of World War II, and its significance cannot be understated. It obliges signatory nations, including the United Kingdom, to provide asylum to those facing persecution. The convention embodies a noble and vital commitment to protecting the world's most vulnerable individuals, including political dissidents, ethnic and religious minorities, and victims of violence.


Braverman's critique, however, centers on concerns about the expansion of the convention's definition of "persecution." She argues that this broadening interpretation has resulted in a growing number of individuals qualifying for refugee status. While Braverman acknowledges the importance of offering sanctuary to those truly persecuted, she raises a valid concern: the sustainability of an asylum system that, in her view, grants protection to individuals solely based on characteristics like sexual orientation or gender discrimination.

This critique raises a fundamental question: should the UN Refugee Convention adapt to the evolving circumstances of the modern world, or does it risk becoming overly inclusive, diluting its primary purpose?

One of the central strengths of the convention is its commitment to non-discrimination. Signatory nations are required not to discriminate against individuals who have crossed their borders illegally before claiming asylum. This principle upholds the notion that those in desperate need of protection should not be penalized for the means by which they reach safety.

However, this principle has posed challenges in the context of the United Kingdom's ongoing efforts to manage small boat crossings and process asylum claims. This issue exemplifies a conundrum facing many nations: balancing their humanitarian obligations with the need to manage migration effectively.

Moreover, the convention's principle of non-refoulement, which prevents signatory countries from returning asylum-seekers to places where their lives or freedom are at risk, is a cornerstone of humanitarian law. Yet, Braverman's suggestion that individuals should be obliged to make asylum claims in the first safe country they reach raises a pertinent question: can this principle adapt to the complex realities of global migration, where people often pass through multiple safe countries before seeking refuge?

The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, has responded to Braverman's critique by asserting the convention's enduring relevance. They argue for a stronger and more consistent application of the convention's principles and for shared responsibility among nations. This viewpoint highlights the critical importance of international cooperation and the enduring need to protect those escaping persecution.


Braverman's concerns should not be dismissed outright, as they touch on the practical challenges faced by nations attempting to manage large numbers of asylum-seekers. Her speech underscores the need for a discussion about the evolving nature of refugee protection, as well as the UN Refugee Convention's adaptability to the complexities of modern migration.

Debate on the UN Refugee Convention and its adaptation to contemporary realities can be achieved by fostering discussion, promoting open dialogue, and considering the following key points:

In conclusion, the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in safeguarding the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. The ongoing debate ignited by Suella Braverman serves as a reminder that international policies, no matter how noble their intentions, must adapt to contemporary realities while remaining true to their fundamental principles.

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About the Author

Dr Vince Hooper is an associate professor at the Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University, Saudi Arabia.

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