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Taking aim at the Refugee Convention will not stop small boats


4 min read

In 1951, in the wake of the Second World War, world leaders came together to agree the Refugee Convention. It was signed by 145 countries: a moment of historic unity and determination to ensure that the Holocaust could never happen again.

Initially only refugees from Europe were in scope, but a 1967 Protocol extended the definition of – and necessary protection for – refugees globally.

In the seven decades since, from the Vietnam War to the Rwandan genocide and the war in Ukraine, the Refugee Convention has provided the framework for refugees to be granted the protection that they deserve. It has been incorporated into case law in the UK and all other signatory nations.

The solutions are clear and possible to implement without dismantling hard-fought international protections like the Refugee Convention

Some interpretations of the Refugee Convention have remained consistent. The Home Secretary asks the question of whether people should claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in. In fact, people's right under international law to claim asylum is not affected by how they enter a country or whether they have passed through other safe countries. As the UN Refugee Agency has made clear, the convention does not mandate people to seek asylum in the first country they arrive in.

In other areas, it is right that the interpretation of the Refugee Convention has changed over time. The Home Secretary acknowledges that people fleeing “a real risk of death, torture, oppression or violence” are in need of protection but questions whether this should include women or gay people. The reality is that gender or sexual orientation can cause this “real risk”, and it is right that the Refugee Convention provides for this. Equally though it is a reality that the numbers claiming on this basis are low: last year just 2 per cent of UK asylum claims included sexual orientation as a reason for needing protection.

The Refugee Convention has withstood the test of time. When there is political will to act to protect refugees, it has consistently provided the right international legal framework to do so. We saw this last year as governments across Europe took measures to protect refugees from Ukraine. 

Humanitarian need is soaring across the world. Climate change is compounding the already severe impacts of conflict, economic crisis and global health threats. Persecution and war have forced 108 million people to flee their homes. But equally pressing is the need for nations to come together to find solutions to the threats that define these times.

When it comes to small boats crossing the Channel, the solutions are clear and possible to implement without dismantling hard-fought international protections like the Refugee Convention.

First, the government must fix the broken asylum system. More than 175,000 people are waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. Of the claims that have been processed from last year, three quarters were found to be successful and claimants were granted refugee status. It is right that people should have their claims processed quickly and fairly and, if unsuccessful, should not be allowed to stay in the UK.

Second, the government must establish safe alternative routes for people who need protection. Expanding the limited planned refugee resettlement schemes is one way of doing this. Equally important is upholding people’s right to seek asylum via a safe route in moments of crisis. One option would be a refugee visa that people could apply for from outside the UK to travel and lodge their claim; another would be to expand refugees’ access to family reunion. This would discourage people from making dangerous Channel crossings and ensure that the UK plays its part in managing global migration challenges in a humane but orderly way.

Third, the government must stay focused on tackling the reasons that people flee their homes in the first place. People getting in small boats to cross the Channel is just one symptom of global challenges going unmanaged. Severe cuts to the aid budget have weakened the government’s role in preventing and responding to these challenges. The Prime Minister’s absence from last week’s UN General Assembly suggests a lack of seriousness about upholding – let alone deepening – fragile international commitments to tackle climate change and alleviating humanitarian need.   

Taking aim at the Refugee Convention will not stop people crossing the Channel in dangerous small boats. It is not right by people fleeing war and persecution. But it is also not right by the British public: IRC/YouGov polling shows that two-thirds of British adults believe that the right to seek asylum should be upheld, contrary to the premise of the government’s Illegal Migration Act and this latest challenge to the Refugee Convention.

If the Home Secretary really wants to ensure protection for people at real risk, she must start not by revisiting international conventions but by pursuing proven, effective solutions at home.


Laura Kyrke-Smith, executive director of the International Rescue Committee UK

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