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(Washington, DC) – The United States government should uphold refugee protections for survivors of domestic violence, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS) and Human Rights Watch said today.

In December 2018, a federal judge delivered a sharp rebuke to the Trump administration’s most significant attempt to undermine asylum protections for domestic violence survivors. A June decision by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a case involving a woman whose initials were A.B. attempted to place a sweeping ban on domestic violence claims. Following a lawsuit filed by CGRS and the American Civil Liberties Union over the summer, US District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the US District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the administration could not impose such a ban and that people who make domestic violence claims must have a fair opportunity to apply for asylum.

But despite Sullivan’s favorable ruling, Ms. A.B.’s case remains in limbo. Until Sessions’s decision is overturned, she and thousands of women like her will continue to face an uphill battle in the courts.

Today CGRS and HRW released a video in which Ms. A.B. shares her story of abuse in El Salvador, the impossibility of finding protection in her home country, and her quest to find safety in the US.

“Ms. A.B. suffered brutal physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and every time she sought protection from the Salvadoran authorities, the police would not protect her,” said Karen Musalo, one of the woman’s attorneys and director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. “In denying her asylum, the former attorney general not only overturned clearly established case law recognizing the right to asylum for survivors of domestic violence, but also repudiated the well-accepted principle that women’s rights are human rights.”

The incoming attorney general should rescind Sessions’s decision, the groups said. If not, Congress should enact legislation that protects the right to asylum for domestic violence survivors and others whose claims have been undermined by the ruling in Ms. A.B.’s case.

Sessions’s administrative decision denying Ms. A.B. asylum overruled the Board of Immigration Appeals’ ruling in a seminal 2014 case, Matter of A-R-C-G-, which recognized that domestic violence survivors may qualify for asylum. Under US and international law, to be eligible for asylum, a person must show a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Domestic violence survivors who are unable to secure protection in their home countries had been able to obtain asylum on the ground of membership in a particular social group, among others.

In the December ruling in Grace v. Whitaker, Sullivan struck down many of the new policies to carry out Sessions’s ruling, writing that there is “no legal basis for an effective categorical ban on domestic violence and gang-related claims.”

Under international law, governments have a clear obligation to prevent domestic violence, as well as to protect, support, and ensure access to justice and services for victims. But around the world, in Central America and elsewhere, women struggle to have governments ensure, or in some cases recognize, their right to protection. In some countries, criminal law does not adequately address domestic violence. More often, domestic violence is outlawed but rates of domestic violence, including violence that ends in homicide, remains high as authorities fail to ensure justice.

“This is absolutely the case in El Salvador, where the government’s utter failure to protect Ms. A.B. forced her to flee for her life,” said Andrés López, her co-counsel.

The Trump administration’s move to severely limit asylum eligibility for domestic violence survivors is consistent with other regressive actions it has taken in recognizing violence against women as a human rights issue. The State Department’s annual human rights country reports since 2017 have excluded detailed analysis of violence against women, as well as reporting on women’s and girls’ reproductive health care.

“The Trump administration’s fallacious view that domestic violence is a matter between private actors fails to recognize the systemic abuse of women’s rights in countries where authorities cannot or do not protect women threatened with domestic violence,” said Grace Meng, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The serious and persistent problem of domestic violence cannot be eliminated unless the US and other countries recognize domestic violence, and the related acts or omissions of the government, as violations of women’s basic human rights.”

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