The cruel implications of Suella Braverman’s Tory Party Conference speech

By Julia Tinsley-Kent

Amidst the self-inflicted turmoil swirling at the Conservative Conference, we awaited Suella Braverman’s first speech as Home Secretary with a mix of dread and anxiety. Before I dive into an analysis of what she said, it’s important to give some context on what is happening behind the scenes because this is going to impact the new Home Secretary’s ability to carry out some of her ‘policies’. The rumour is that Prime Minister Liz Truss and Braverman (along with other ministers) are at loggerheads over immigration. Essentially, Truss wants more migration while Braverman has been very vocal about her plans to cut numbers, possibly in an attempt to appeal to the Tory membership and retain her predecessor’s hardline stance.

Although, let’s not give Truss too much credit and see her as a defender of migration or free movement. Truss’ main focus is the economy, although arguably an economy at the expense of the majority of working people. As one of the authors of the 2012 book Britannia Unchained, she believes in less regulation, more entrepreneurship, and a rollback in employment laws. She ultimately wants more migration to deliver “growth, growth and growth”. We’re concerned about what this is going to mean for migrant workers; specifically, how they will be protected from exploitation and modern slavery, and not seen through the lens of disposable commodities.

Despite a sense of uncertainty about what the concrete details of Home Office policies will be in the midst of Conservative infighting, the content of Braverman’s speech is no less insidious.

Her commitment to criminalising refugees

We were fairly certain when Suella Braverman became Home Secretary that there was every chance she would be determined to outdo Priti Patel. Her speech confirmed our fears.

Prior to her speech in the main conference hall, she did an interview at an event hosted by the Chopper’s Politics podcast in which she stated it was her ‘dream’ to see a flight taking off to Rwanda. A flight full of refugees and asylum seekers. If this was supposed to be an ode to Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech, as James O’Brien on LBC pointed out, then how far we have fallen. Not only is such a comment completely devoid of humanity, it once again highlights that in Britain, there is an epidemic of not understanding or not wanting to understand what compels people to seek safety in the UK.

Woven throughout her speech was the concept of how people must contribute to Britain’s economy, who genuinely have the right to be here, and tackling numbers of undocumented migrants. There were themes we have heard over recent years: the issue of asylum seekers stuck in hotels, interventions by the European Court of Human Rights and encouraging British people to take up jobs as HGV drivers or fruit pickers to stop reliance on migration.

Firstly, it’s essential to dissect the idea of the ‘illegal immigrant’. There is no such thing. While an action can be illegal, a human being cannot. Moreover, when an action is defined as illegal, legal status is arbitrary and often does not coincide with morality. The term is dehumanising and reductive, diminishing the struggle many migrants have gone through. It also contributes to increased hostility towards migratised people and insinuates they are undeserving of rights. The Migrants’ Rights Network has more information on this as part of the Words Matter campaign.

I must caveat criticisms of Braverman’s speech by stating that this rhetoric is not exclusive to the Right. Last week, I wrote to Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves MP to voice the Migrants’ Rights Network’s concern around inflammatory language she used in a Sky News interview on immigration. Specifically, ‘illegal migrants’, ‘genuine asylum seekers’ and how those without the right to work here should be sent home. This is worrying as it shows language once confined to the likes of Nigel Farage has seeped into the centre of British politics.

So evidently, suspicion of people who come to the UK dominates discourse along the political spectrum. But it doesn’t make Braverman’s plans for migratised people any less frightening. Not only did she reaffirm her commitment to “making the Rwanda plan work”, but she demonstrated her animosity towards refugees by committing to bringing forward legislation to criminalise those arriving from apparent ‘safe countries’ or via the Channel, such as small boats.

The Rwanda plan and the outsourcing of the UK’s asylum obligations has been widely condemned, including by the UNHCR. It symbolises an age of State-sanctioned cruelty towards them. Those who do not enter the UK through so-called safe routes will be returned to their country of origin or deported to Rwanda. Make no mistake, this marks another sad chapter in our country’s history, one where our Government boasts about turning its back on refugees.

This is, of course, a blatant breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention of which the UK is a signatory and has incorporated the Convention into its domestic law. Article 31 of the Convention protects refugees against prosecution for ‘illegal’ entry into a receiving country. In addition, we must interrogate the concept of ‘safe countries’ which is often used in relation to people crossing the Channel from France. There is no obligation for someone to claim asylum in the first ‘safe’ country they reach. The UK is a destination for some because they have family ties here or they speak English. In addition, safe routes hardly exist and if they do, they are for a very select few like Ukrainian refugees.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the UK’s swift response raised questions around who is welcome in the country. Those fleeing places like Syria, Afghanistan, or South Sudan have not been granted the same response from Europe. Furthemore, People of Colour trapped in Ukraine have been abandoned to suffer the violence of war and Europe’s border regimes. Unfortunately, this was not a surprise to the team at the Migrants’ Rights Network. Earlier this year, a Home Office commissioned report was leaked that showed racist immigration legislation has been designed with the intent to reduce the UK’s non-White population.

Braverman’s speech has its roots in this idea. It also negates the fact that many of the situations people are fleeing have resulted from colonialism and Western intervention.

Criminalising victims of modern slavery

Before I go into detail on her points relating to human trafficking, let’s just take a moment to reflect on the fact we are living in age where a democratically elected public servant is met with cheers and applause while she belittles and dismisses the experience of modern slavery victims. Given Britain’s history in, and relationship with, the slave trade, this moment should leave us with a sour taste.

Protecting slavery victims should be a priority for any government, but the UK Government seems determined to punish them. The new Home Secretary made the claim that there has been a 450% increase in modern slavery claims since 2014 but insinuated that the UK’s laws were being abused. She even went as far as to accuse many, specifically Albanians, of lying when making claims of trafficking. Prior to this address to Tory party members, she gave an interview to The Sun newspaper in which she talked about plans to restrict the ability of migrants to challenge deportations on the basis they had been subjected to forced labour or trafficking.

In response, the Migrants’ Rights Network worked with Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), Migrants at Work, Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) and the UK BME Anti-Slavery Network to voice our concerns about her proposed plans. It’s unclear where Braverman is sourcing evidence of false claims, but the available evidence clearly shows 90% of cases referred from immigration detention are confirmed as trafficking victims. The Government’s own statistics show that between April and June 2022, Albanians were the most common nationality to be referred by the NRM.

And yet, the Home Secretary is determined to make their lives harder by labelling them liars.

War on woke: how British values are a political weapon

Braverman also reinforced the Government’s commitment to the culture war with a specific attack on identity politics. Identity politics is another phrase that has been demonised in recent years, but it’s vital we unpack what it actually means. It is essentially “political or social activity by or on behalf of a racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender, or other group, usually undertaken with the goal of rectifying injustices suffered by group members because of differences or conflicts between their particular identity… and the dominant identity… of a larger society.”

It’s safe to say she has been one of the most vocal critics on pretty much everything linked to ‘political correctness’ and identity politics. These include voicing transphobic views at a time where transphobic attacks are on the rise, yet she is continuing to use them as a political scapegoat. Her loathing of this extends to the racial and ethnic demographics of the UK, specifically relating to multiculturalism.

She believes that the combination of identity politics and multiculturalism along with an apparent failure of ‘newcomers’ to integrate have led to the current situation in Leicester. We know this is not the case, rather because of international right-wing ideology. In addition, she also stated that political correctness had led to the incidents of grooming gangs in Rotherham. In fact, a Home Office paper into the ‘characteristics’ of these gangs which was initially promised by then-Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, found that the majority of child sexual abuse gangs are made up of White men under the age of 30. Race and ethnicity became a fixture of the discourse around these cases, often detracting from addressing the actual underlying factors that led to the abuse.

Braverman’s attack on enemies in the form of “the militants” and the “anarchists and the extremists” should not be overlooked. Her dismissal of the ‘Left’ and their apparent attack on whatever she views as our elemental values marks another step back in social justice movements.

It may be wishful thinking to or perhaps giving Braverman too much credit to say that this rhetoric is a strategy to woo certain sections of the electorate. Furthemore, perhaps it is a symptom of a failing government and political party which is scrambling desperately to find scapegoats and culprits for the mountain of problems Britain is facing. Cue Truss’ conference speech and the birth of the Anti-Growth Coalition.

However, the rise in hate crime shows that whether she believes it or not, she is fuelling a fire of hate. It is clear that she is prepared to throw trans people, refugees, migrants, and racialised communities under the bus. History shows us that this rhetoric can have terrifying consequences and we cannot be complacent in fighting it.

If Britain’s official Opposition are complicit in demonising vulnerable groups of people, whether that’s dubbing them ‘illegal’ or slapping anti-migrant slogans on coffee cups, then I suspect their rights will continue to be stripped. That’s why WE have to be the opposition and put our solidarity into active resistance.

About the Migrants’ Rights Network:

The Migrants’ Rights Network is a charity which stands in solidarity with migrants in their fights for rights and justice. The organisation builds relationships with grassroots, migrant-led organisations to understand the issues that are important to them. In partnership with these groups, they co-create campaigns, resources and tools to challenge the hostile environment policies. Through these coalitions, it strives to create a society where migrants can live free from forms of oppression and discrimination.

If you are interested in learning more about the Migrants’ Rights Network and their work, there are lots of ways you can get involved, including:

About the Author:

Julia Tinsley-Kent is Policy Manager at the Migrants’ Rights Network. She is responsible for designing and delivering advocacy strategies and campaigns across their migration priorities, including policy analysis. She specialised in the prevalence of post-colonial discourse in the British media at university and has a qualification in Public Policy Analysis from the London School of Economics (LSE).

She also has extensive experience of working with refugees and migrants. Whilst undertaking her undergraduate degree, she co-founded and ran a student-led project which taught refugees English, winning a Pride of Newcastle award in 2017. In addition, she is a mentor to a young refugee and is involved in refugee activism alongside her role at the Migrants’ Rights Network.

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