Theresa May previously vowed she would ‘not in a thousand years’ take part in any Europe-wide refugee responsibility-sharing deal.
British PM will use first UN speech to try to block refugees’ escape routes and push for poorest countries to bear brunt of crisis
Monday 19 September 2016
Theresa May will use her first speech to the United Nations to argue that the world’s wealthiest countries should offer only minimum protection to all but the most vulnerable of the world’s refugees.
It will mark the start of her international campaign to dilute the right to claim asylum and to ensure – by enshrining the principle that claims for asylum should be made in the first safe country – that more than 86% of the world’s refugees are looked after by the poorest and middle-income countries.
For make no mistake, when May talks of agreeing “a better distinction between refugees and economic migrants” she is talking about limiting the right of asylum seekers to reach Europe to have their claims for refugee status properly considered. When she also proposes that countries must “take responsibility to stop uncontrolled migrant flows” she is willing the means to ensure that happens.
We know this because the UN’s speech is not a one-off. Indeed May showcased her strategy for dealing with the worst refugee crisis since the second world war in her Conservative Party conference speech as home secretary last October.
Then she made clear that she wanted to limit the number of asylum seekers who made it to Britain to claim refugee status by branding those who had made it across the Mediterranean to Calais or Britain as the “wealthiest, fittest and strongest” with the quasi-Darwinian implication that they are in some way undeserving queue-jumpers.
She said more than 290,000 Syrians had claimed asylum across Europe at that point, and contrasted them sharply with the plight of the “most vulnerable” refugees in the Middle East camps. May boasted of Britain’s decision to take 20,000 of those most vulnerable refugees and promised she would “not in a thousand years” take part in any Europe-wide refugee responsibility-sharing programme.
Instead May asserted last October that she wanted Britain to unilaterally enforce the “first safe country” rule by breaking the link between being recognised as a refugee and getting the right to settle in Britain.
“If you’ve spurned the chance to seek protection elsewhere – but we cannot return you to that safe country and you still need refuge – you’ll get the minimum stay of protection and you won’t have an automatic right to settle here,” she warned, adding that when that came to an end they would be returned as soon as a case review deemed it safe for them to do so. This lesser form of refugee status will also apply to those who successfully claim asylum after overstaying a British visa.
She also launched her campaign for a review of the international legal definitions of who can qualify as a refugee or be rejected as an economic migrant to chip away at the 1951 Geneva convention definitions of those who should not be returned to countries where they face serious threats to their lives or freedom.
This was not just party conference rhetoric. Home Office ministers confirmed in February that work was under way on a strategy to cut the numbers claiming asylum in Britain and to provide temporary protection to all but the “most deserving” refugees.
There is a new twist. In her final months as home secretary, May was considering introducing a policy that a greater number of the most vulnerable refugees would be resettled in Britain only if it matched a reduction in those claiming asylum after reaching Britain under their own steam.
Today’s UN summit on refugees and migrants will see many developing countries arguing for a major expansion in legal routes such as resettlement programmes, so that the wealthiest countries share some of the responsibility for the greatest refugee crisis since the second world war.
They are hoping the UN special assembly will prove a watershed moment in the world’s response. Instead of rising to the challenge, the British prime minister will be blocking people’s escape routes and leaving the world’s poorest countries to cope with the crisis.