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EU court rules gender-based violence ground for asylum

January 17, 2024

The European Court of Justice has ruled that women, as a whole, can be regarded as belonging to a social group and thus entitled to asylum if subjected to domestic or sexual violence. NGOs have welcomed the decision.

https://p.dw.com/p/4bO8L
A woman attends a demonstration on the occasion of International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, her face painted with a red hand print
Violence against women is widespread all over the world Image: Luca Bruno/AP Photo/picture alliance

The Luxemburg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that women who suffer or are at risk of "physical or mental violence, including sexual violence and domestic violence" on account of their gender in their country of origin could apply for protection and be granted refugee status. 

The original case in the ECJ concerned a Turkish Muslim national of Kurdish origin. She claimed that her family had forced her into marriage, and she had been threatened and beaten by her husband, from whom she is now divorced.

She escaped to Bulgaria after leaving him and said that her life would be at risk if she returned to Turkey. That is why she applied for international protection in Bulgaria, which turned to the ECJ for a ruling on what is essentially a case concerning a potential so-called "honor killing."

An empty courtroom
The European Court of Justice is based in Luxembourg Image: /Patrick Scheiber/imago

'Women are a social group'

The ECJ stated on Tuesday that refugee status was "to be granted in cases where a third-country national is persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership a particular social group."

It then ruled that "women, as a whole, may be regarded as belonging to a social group," and that refugee status could be granted if certain conditions applied. "This will be the case where, in their country of origin, they are exposed, on account of their gender, to physical or mental violence, including sexual violence and domestic violence."

The court added that if the conditions for granting refugee status were not satisfied, women "may qualify for subsidiary protection status, in particular where they run a real risk of being killed or subjected to violence," all the more so if there was a risk of this being "inflicted by a member of their family or community due to the alleged transgression of cultural, religious or traditional norms." 

Terry Reintke at a microphine in a European Parliament briefing room
German MEP Terry Reintke said the ruling was an important ruling for the protection of womenImage: Philippe Stirnweiss/EP

'Important ruling for protection of women from domestic and sexual violence'

Terry Reintke, a German MEP and co-president of the Greens group in the European Parliament, told DW that it was a "very important ruling for the protection of women from domestic and sexual violence." She said it made clear that the EU also had to protect women without EU passports from domestic violence in their countries of origin.

Polish MEP Robert Biedron, who chairs the women's rights and gender equality committee in the European Parliament, said it was an "important step towards promoting an inclusive and compassionate approach to asylum policy."

Germany's largest pro-immigration advocacy group, Pro Asyl, and the German non-profit organization Terre des Femmes also welcomed the ruling. Karl Kopp, the head of Pro Asyl's European department, said it would strengthen women's legal position. Stephanie Walter from Terre des Femmes said it would improve the chances of women who are victims of domestic violence.

But Walter said she doubted that the ruling would make a major difference to German practice. She told DW that many cases in German courts had already been decided according to the standards set out by the ECJ ruling and pointed out that the "crux of the matter" lay elsewhere. She said that for women to be able to apply for asylum and make their case, a specific framework was needed, such as safe accommodation and access to specialist consultation centers.

She explained that women were often unaware when first asked to give their reasons for escaping their home country by authorities that genital mutilation, forced marriage and domestic violence were considered to be acceptable grounds.

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Significance of the Istanbul Convention

Kopp said it was important to see how the ruling was implemented in the different member states of the EU but that, fundamentally, its effect would be positive.

He said if it were properly implemented, it could be assumed more women would receive protection in the future and that the "achievements of the Istanbul Convention" would once again be "fully reflected in the asylum procedure."

The European treaty, which the EU ratified in June 2023, aims to prevent violence and protect victims and binds its signatories to a series of measures to this effect. 

Though all EU states have signed it, it has yet to be ratified by Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Lithuania and Slovakia.

EU parliamentarian Reintke said that, in her view, the ECJ ruling was only made possible by the EU's accession to the Istanbul Convention, which was mentioned explicitly by the court. She called on those EU member states that had not yet ratified the convention to do so.

Polish MEP Biedron said the EU's accession to the Istanbul Convention was "a symbol of the EU's willingness to eliminate violence against women."

This article was translated from German.

DW Mitarbeiterin Lucia Schulten
Lucia Schulten Brussels Correspondent