08/10/2015 12:37 BST | Updated 08/10/2016 06:12 BST

Britain's Asylum Policies Must Be Shaped by Our Best Traditions, Not Our Worst

Ouch. At Refugee Action we're still reeling from the Home Secretary's speech this week. Let me tell you why. There's a very simple principle at the heart of the international asylum system: every person must be assessed on their merits. Genuine refugees, fleeing war and persecution, need quick decisions on their applications and their personal experience. To help them survive before and after that decision, they need the right support to rebuild their lives.

The Home Secretary directly attacked that principle. She described asylum seekers reaching the UK as 'fit' and 'young', and contrasted them with refugees seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

She didn't stop there. She suggested that the system needed reform because 'in 2002 asylum seekers were allowed to come to the UK just to seek work'. We checked that. Almost 50% of asylum seekers in 2002 came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Sri Lanka. The vast majority were, as you'd expect, found to be refugees. They were not economic migrants.

In differentiating by age, gender and where people claim asylum, the Home Secretary is making a series of false distinctions. You don't have to be a family fleeing ISIL to be a genuine refugee. Nor should it be a question of the merits of resettling refugees who remain in UN-run camps in neighbouring countries, and those who are forced to flee and claim asylum in the UK. A compassionate, forward looking society which respects international law should and must welcome refugees - regardless of their nationality or how they make their claim.

All this is pretty worrying. But we agree with Theresa May on some important issues. First, we agree that we need a new deal on asylum. At Refugee Action we've worked with asylum seekers and refugees for over 30 years. Every day we see the need for change in a decision-making process that is slow, intimidating for those involved, and fails to provide the support people need before a life-changing decision is made on their application. We've written elsewhere on the four pillars of a fair and effective asylum policy.

Second, the Home Secretary is also right to highlight the fundamental distinction between economic migration and refugees fleeing persecution and conflict. (It's a shame that she then described those in Greece, Italy and Calais as migrants.) But we're mystified by the emphasis that she placed on managing the number of asylum applications to the UK. Less than one in twenty people arriving in the UK last year claimed asylum. Even if there were no asylum applications to the UK, net migration would have been over 300,000. But we'll be delighted to contribute to a review of asylum policy - as long as it's designed to make it fairer and more effective.

The British public will want this too. Over the past six weeks, there has been an outpouring of compassion and support for refugees. An incredible one-third of the British people have supported refugees in some way. 1.4 million people have signed petitions calling for the UK to welcome refugees.

But the home secretary used her speech to suggest that the aim of a new asylum strategy should be to reduce the number of people claiming asylum in Britain. Millions of people will be appalled by that approach.

A new UK strategy must also reflect the international context. The world is in the midst of the worst global refugee crisis since World War Two. UN figure show that almost 60m people (or one in every 122 humans on the planet) are either refugees, internally displaced or asylum seekers.

The Home Secretary did highlight the important role that Britain is playing in supporting refugees elsewhere in the world. That's a third point on which we are delighted to agree. Only a very small proportion of the world's refugees are in Europe, 16% as of 2010. Few come to the UK. The Home Secretary could have highlighted this yesterday.

Back to the review of asylum policy proposed by the Home Secretary. She wants to limit appeals. But a third of appeals are successful. The government must improve the quality of asylum decision making, to get decisions right first time and remove the need for costly and lengthy appeals processes.

A new UK asylum strategy must treat every asylum seeker on their merits, and ensure that Britain plays its full part in a humane international response to the global refugee crisis. We need early confirmation of both.

The prime minister is fond of saying that Britain should use 'head and heart' to shape our refugee policy. We agree. There is no place for scare-mongering, or arbitrary limits on our compassion.