European Court of Justice Expands Asylum Protections for Women Facing Gender-Based Violence

In a landmark decision (C-621/21), the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has expanded asylum protections for women facing gender-based violence, affirming that women, can be recognized as belonging to a social group entitled to asylum. The ruling came in response to the case of a Turkish woman of Kurdish origin who sought refuge in Bulgaria after experiencing threats, beatings, and forced marriage in her home country. The court’s decision has been met with approval from various NGOs, signaling a crucial step forward in recognizing the unique challenges faced by women fleeing domestic and sexual violence.

The ECJ, based in Luxembourg, clarified that refugee status could be granted to individuals persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Importantly, the court declared that “women, as a whole, may be regarded as belonging to a social group,” and refugee status could be granted if they face physical or mental violence, including sexual and domestic violence, in their country of origin. The court emphasized that if the conditions for granting full refugee status were not met, women could still qualify for subsidiary protection status. This applies particularly if there is a real risk of being killed or subjected to violence, especially by family or community members, due to alleged transgressions of cultural, religious, or traditional norms.

While the ruling is seen as a positive development, concerns have been raised regarding its practical impact. Various women’s organisations highlighted the need for a specific framework, including safe accommodations and access to specialist consultation centers, for women to effectively apply for asylum and present their cases. 

The significance of the Istanbul Convention, ratified by the EU in June 2023, was acknowledged by the ECJ. The treaty aims to prevent violence and protect victims, binding its signatories, including EU member states. Notably, some EU countries, such as Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Slovakia, have yet to ratify the convention, prompting calls for their swift adoption to bolster the ECJ’s ruling.

The ECJ’s decision represents a crucial step towards recognizing the specific challenges faced by women fleeing gender-based violence and seeking asylum. As the EU member states navigate the implementation of this ruling, emphasis on the Istanbul Convention’s principles becomes paramount, underlining the EU’s commitment to eliminating violence against women.