On June 11, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the United States will no longer recognize domestic or gang violence as legitimate grounds for granting asylum. In announcing his decision, Session claimed that “the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune,” defining the “prototypical refugee” as an individual who is persecuted by their government and who can only be protected from such persecution by being granted asylum in the United States. In a speech following the ruling, Sessions referred to domestic violence as “private violence,” a jarring characterization that harkens back to a time many hoped was a vestige of a not-so-distant past.
The U.S. government’s position violates international humanitarian law and purposefully misconstrues the very foundation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which the United States has signed. It also reverses hard-won progress in recognizing the rights of those suffering from intimate partner violence.
Domestic violence is a form of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). During his announcement, Session argued that it is “unlikely to satisfy the statutory grounds for proving group persecution that the government is unable or unwilling to address.” Contrary to Sessions’ claims, however, SGBV has been recognized as a form of group persecution. In many countries, governments are, in fact, unwilling or unable to address these crimes. In 2002, the UN Human Rights Commissioner for Refugees issued guidelines on international protection related specifically to gender-related persecution, arguing for a gender-sensitive interpretation of asylum law. The UN has continued to affirm that sexual and gender based violence amounts to persecution under international human rights law. The guidelines also state that if a country does not afford or uphold protection from abuses such as domestic violence, this can amount to persecution.
Examples from Central America demonstrate the widespread nature of this form of violence, as well as pervasive government intransigence. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are among the top five countries for rates of female homicides, according to NGO Futures Without Violence. In Guatemala, every 46 minutes a new case of sexual violence is reported, while instances of domestic violence often occur within the context of gang violence. According to the UN, 95 percent of sexual violence and femicide cases are never investigated in Honduras.
For those applying for asylum on the basis of domestic violence, Session’s ruling is tantamount to a “death sentence,” as lawyer Kathryn Shepherd stated in an interview. In addition to the irreparable damage that this policy will cause, it also underscores American hypocrisy on gender-related issues. One of the Trump Administration’s first acts, for example, was to reinstate the Global Gag rule, which threatens to withdraw U.S. funding for any organization that uses non-U.S. funds to counsel patients about having abortions, provides abortion services, or advocates for access to abortions. This position has extremely damaging implications for women worldwide, jeopardizing not only their right to reproductive healthcare, but also other programming such as food assistance. As this policy suggests, for the United States, a woman’s body is clearly not a “private” matter.