Refugees queue for supplies near a village on the Greece-Macedonia border © AFP

One of the features of the post-cold war world has been the dramatic and sustained increase in migration. Driven by more porous borders and the rise of cheap mass travel, demographic pressure in regions such as the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa has spilled across borders, and even continents. The result has been the curdling of politics in Europe, and the rise of a new strident populist anti-immigrant right.

As Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May has every reason to comprehend the political perils of immigration. The country’s recent vote to leave the EU was, after all, a reaction in part to the inability of its leaders to control the intra-European movement of people.

She used her first speech to the UN General Assembly to address the topic, urging that the approach to international migration be updated. Countries, she said, needed “to ensure we are implementing policies that are fit for the challenges we face today”.

The prime minister is right that the system needs revisiting. Originally designed for a simpler and less mobile world, the scope of the 1951 Geneva convention was carelessly expanded in 1967. From an instrument crafted to tackle state persecution and displacement in postwar Europe, it became one purporting to span the entire globe.

Its provisions place far-reaching obligations on states, such as the requirement to admit anyone claiming asylum who has made their way to a country’s frontier. Yet such rules are both unsuited to an age of mass travel, in which the number of those deemed refugees has soared sixfold from 10m in 1985 to almost 60m 30 years on.

They also go against the duty of national leaders to protect their borders, a duty that undermines the system’s legitimacy. No one has collided with this reality more painfully than Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose generous stance on asylum has led to a string of electoral defeats.

Reform does not mean abolishing the convention, still less the humane impulses underpinning it. Instead, returning more control to states could be a way of unlocking their generosity.

The main objective is a tighter definition of what constitutes a valid ground for asylum. Over the years this has been judicially stretched far beyond its original meaning. It should be pared back to a narrower definition that can command wider consensus. Asylum should be directed at those seeking refuge from a tyranny that denies them the chance to lead a quiet life.

Mrs May is also right to say that more should be done to help refugees to stay close to their country of origin. That is the best chance for ensuring that their exile is not permanent. But that requires economic support for those states in the front line, such as Lebanon and Jordan in the case of Syria. And that means more than state aid; private sector involvement and infrastructure must also be in the mix.

Western policy towards asylum cannot be confined to reformulating conventions and laws. The world’s rich countries need to think harder about how they stabilise failing states, notably in the Middle East and north Africa. The EU has been particularly lacking in this regard, providing too little support for its Mediterranean neighbourhood. In the current crisis, member states have balked at resettling Syrian refugees who manifestly need help.

In this matter, Britain bears as much of the blame as any other European state. But that should not stop Mrs May making her argument about the need for a fundamental rethink of the basis of postwar asylum policy. The alternative is more walls and political support for those who promise them. That is something the world must try to avoid.

Letters in response to this editorial:

Put the criminal people smugglers out of business / From Clare Short

The number must be up for flawed global asylum system / From Alexander Betts

Leaders must focus on protecting refugees’ rights / From Kate Allen

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