Media Release

‘Suella is right about asylum system, but her ambitions need the Refugee Convention’

The asylum system needs change – but a new system which gives the UK more control and is humane to refugees is possible within the Refugee Convention, according to the Social Market Foundation in response to Home Secretary’s Washington speech.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman gave a speech in Washington today, claiming that the 1951 Refugee Convention is not ‘fit for our modern age’. Whilst Braverman is right to criticise the modern refugee system, she is wrong to blame the Refugee Convention, the SMF argues.

The SMF points out that the Home Secretary wrongly criticises the Refugee Convention for protecting those who are ‘merely’ discriminated against (e.g. due to being a woman or part of the LGBT+ community) when it does not do so.

The Convention also does not prevent the transfer of refugees to other countries as long as they are not placed at risk of being returned to danger to their life or liberty – the main Convention principle of “non-refoulement” (See notes). Far from allowing refugees to “pick their preferred destination to claim” the Refugee Convention does not prohibit the Government’s scheme to transfer refugees to Rwanda, if Rwanda is deemed to be safe, the SMF highlights.

However, the Convention is sorely lacking a mechanism for states to share responsibility for refugees. It is this gap which lies at the heart of the dysfunctional international refugee system. This is a political challenge – not a legal one – which the UK and other European countries can meet with the right political will, the SMF said. Keir Starmer’s recent statements around the potential for burden sharing in Europe suggest that he understands this.


Jonathan Thomas, SMF Senior Fellow, said:
“The international refugee system is a dystopian nightmare which works far better for people smugglers than states or refugees.

Whilst the Home Secretary is right to point out its defects, ripping up the Refugee Convention risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As a cornerstone of the international system, the Convention provides important legal protections and carefully balances the interests of states with their broader responsibilities, but how these are realised in practice is down to political will and agreement.

How states should share responsibility for legitimate refugees is a political, not a legal, problem. It was not easy to solve in 1951. So states did not fix it. They kicked the can down the road. We are still staring at that can today.

It is fixable though, without leaving, or even amending, the Refugee Convention. It requires states to agree to break the link between where the refugee claims asylum and where they are settled, in return agreeing to accept their fair share of refugees. Keir Starmer’s recent statement around the potential for better sharing the responsibility for refugees across Europe was a small but necessary step in the right direction.”


In a forthcoming paper, the SMF will set out how states could better take control of refugee flows, while also at the same time instituting a fairer and more humane system for refugees overall. It echoes some of the Home Secretary’s criticisms of the status quo, but argues that a better approach is possible, indeed entirely allowed, within the terms of the Refugee Convention.



  1. The SMF’s work on the asylum includes:
    1. The sound of silence (July 2023) focused on reform of asylum seekers’ right to work in the UK, can be found here:
    2. Routes to resolution (December 2022) with proposals for taking better control over the chaos in the Channel in a more humane way here:
    3. We need to talk about Albania (May 2021) about the challenges for public opinion of mixed flows and returns here:
    4. Stuck in the middle with you (March 2021) on proposals for reform of resettling refugees into the UK to lead more productive lives, here:
    5. Fixing Britain’s Broken Asylum System (November 2020), how the UK could take centre stage in reform of the global refugee system, here:
  1. The 1951 Refugee Convention provides an agreed definition of a refugee, establishes basic minimum standards for their treatment, and says that refugees should not be penalised for breaching immigration rules while fleeing. Its core principle is “non-refoulement” – which means refugees should not be returned or expelled from a country against their will if they fear for their life or freedom. Almost 150 countries have signed up to the Convention.


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