07/10/2015 05:37 BST | Updated 06/10/2016 06:12 BST

Theresa May's Hierarchy of Asylum Is Divisive, Inhumane and Ill-informed

There were more than a few inflammatory points in Theresa May's speech to the Conservative Party conference yesterday. One such moment came when she addressed how Britain deals with asylum seekers.

'The system', she said, 'is geared towards helping those most able to access it [...] those who are young enough, fit enough, and have the resources to get to Britain.'

She went on, 'instead of helping those in greatest need, it rewards the wealthiest, the luckiest and the strongest.'

The answer, she told us, is this: 'Wherever possible, I want to offer asylum and refuge to people in parts of the world affected by conflict and oppression, rather than to those who have made it to Britain.'

Not only does this suggestion stand in total contempt of international law on asylum, but it also exploits a widely held and naïve idea about who refugees are.

In order to be worthy of our compassion and of a place in British society, May implies, refugees must be poor as well as persecuted. Those who have managed to make it to Britain - an often long and perilous journey undertaken in the correct belief they may apply for asylum when they arrive - are clearly too young, fit and wealthy to be deserving of sanctuary. On May's hierarchy of asylum, they are near the bottom.

This attitude perpetuates the narrow and misinformed idea of 'the refugee' as poverty-stricken, malnourished and uneducated.

Countless articles this summer have given fodder to this outdated and totally inaccurate image. We have been told that the majority of people arriving in Europe to claim asylum cannot possibly be refugees because they have smartphones, decent clothes, money to pay smugglers and flesh on their bones.

Yet a refugee is defined as 'a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster'. Having money in your pocket, clothes in your wardrobe and food in your fridge is no protection against bombs, earthquakes or those who seek to imprison or torture you for your political or religious beliefs or your sexuality.

May argues that these people should not be 'rewarded' with safety. But why should they be punished with deportation for having the courage, perseverance and resources to make the journey to Europe?

It would be laughable to suggest that Sigmund Freud or Marlene Dietrich should not have been 'rewarded' with refuge from Nazi persecution, simply because they had wealth and their need was therefore not as great as many poorer refugees.

Those who genuinely fear death or persecution in their own country have the right to seek sanctuary elsewhere - that is and should remain the only criterion.

We should not have to choose between those who flee war with healthy bodies and money in their pockets and those who are too poor to flee very far. Of course we cannot accept every person who needs refuge, but no one is asking us to.

Let us welcome both those who make it here with genuine claims for asylum and those who are resettled under the vulnerable persons scheme. May's hierarchy of asylum is divisive, inhumane and unnecessary. We must fight against it.