On 26 September, Home Secretary Suella Braverman gave a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. in which she said, “being gay, or a woman, and fearful of discrimination in your country of origin” is not grounds to seek asylum. Aside from being a flagrant dog whistle to elements of the Conservative Party that are still openly homophobic, this statement fundamentally misunderstands the purpose and value of a fair, just and equitable asylum system.
Under Braverman and her predecessor Priti Patel, asylum seekers have become this government’s punching bag, on which they can blame almost anything. This has been spurred on by a moral panic, created by the right-wing tabloid press, about small boats crossing the English Channel. Rather than engaging in any constructive policy-making to help vulnerable people, such as clearing the backlog of asylum applications, this government would rather scapegoat refugees and use them as a political tool.
Rather than engaging in any constructive policy-making to help vulnerable people, such as clearing the backlog of asylum applications, this government would rather scapegoat refugees and use them as a political tool.
As it stands, there are just three “safe and legal” routes for refugees to seek asylum in the UK, and in practice, only one (for Ukrainians) is actually viable. This has helped to foster a falsehood that asylum status is only for those afflicted by war and conflict, such as that in Ukraine, and it is common to hear people debunk those fleeing countries like Iran as “economic migrants” rather than “not real refugees” because “there’s no war there”.
In reality, asylum can be sought for dozens of reasons, particularly for members of vulnerable groups such as LGBTQ+ people and women who risk persecution by merely existing in so many countries around the world. This is the agenda that Braverman wants to play into, whether overtly through her speech or covertly by failing to establish safe and legal routes for those facing discrimination and persecution for their sexuality or gender identity.
These remarks come at a time when LGBTQ+ people are facing increased levels of persecution across the world. Earlier this year, Uganda introduced some of the most repressive anti-LGBTQ+ laws in the world, becoming one of 12 countries that use the death penalty for LGBTQ+ people. These form part of the 66 countries in the world where homosexuality remains criminalised, mostly spanning Africa and Asia. Britain has a long history of standing up for marginalised groups around the world, and this includes giving protection to LGBTQ+ people facing discrimination, in the words of Suella Braverman, “simply for being gay”.
Take, for example, the case of David Kato, a Ugandan gay rights activist who came to the University of York in 2010 for a short fellowship. On returning to Uganda, his name was published on a list of suspected gay men in a Ugandan newspaper, and in 2011 he was brutally murdered by thugs. It is in memory of people like Kato that the UK should be protecting LGBTQ+ people, not throwing them to the sharks and allowing them to suffer discrimination and persecution at the hands of brutally homophobic regimes like Uganda, Iran and Sudan.
It is in memory of people like Kato that the UK should be protecting LGBTQ+ people, not throwing them to the sharks and allowing them to suffer discrimination and persecution at the hands of brutally homophobic regimes
At the turn of the 21st century, in the shadow of Section 28 (introduced by Thatcher in 1988 and abolished under Blair’s New Labour in 2003), it appeared the UK had turned a corner on LGBTQ+ rights. In 2004, civil partnerships for gay couples were introduced, and the Gender Recognition Act was passed to allow transgender people to legally change their gender. Less than a decade later in 2013, the coalition government legalised same-sex marriage. Aside from a few extreme zealots, the mainstream of both political parties had a consensus on LGBTQ+ rights, and the UK was willing to use its position on the global stage to campaign for equality around the world.
Now, however, the ravages of culture wars have taken over the Conservative Party. The demonisation of refugees, combined with a toxic atmosphere for LGBTQ+ people spurred on by the normalisation of transphobia, is the perfect recipe for bigoted remarks like those of Braverman. Her comments are a product of far-right rhetoric around both refugees and LGBTQ+ people, and they must be condemned as such. If the Home Secretary genuinely believes that discrimination against women and LGBTQ+ people is not a legitimate cause for asylum, we must sincerely doubt whether the UK can claim to still be an open, tolerant and inclusive society.