GUIDELINES ON INTERNATIONAL PROTECTION:
“Membership of a particular social group” within the context
of Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol
relating to the Status of Refugees
UNHCR issues these Guidelines pursuant to its mandate, as contained in the Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Article 35 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and/or its 1967 Protocol. These Guidelines complement the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (Reedited, Geneva, January 1992). They further supersede IOM/132/1989 – FOM/110/1989 Membership of a Particular Social Group (UNHCR, Geneva, 12 December 1989), and result from the Second Track of the Global Consultations on International Protection process which examined this subject at its expert meeting in San Remo in September 2001.
These Guidelines are intended to provide legal interpretative guidance for governments, legal practitioners, decision-makers and the judiciary, as well as UNHCR staff carrying out refugee status determinations in the field.
“Membership of a particular social group” within the context of
1. “Membership of a particular social group” is one of the five grounds enumerated in Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (“1951 Convention”). It is the ground with the least clarity and it is not defined by the 1951 Convention itself. It is being invoked with increasing frequency in refugee status determinations, with States having recognised women, families, tribes, occupational groups, and homosexuals, as constituting a particular social group for the purposes of the 1951 Convention. The evolution of this ground has advanced the understanding of the refugee definition as a whole. These Guidelines provide legal interpretative guidance on assessing claims which assert that a claimant has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of his or her membership of a particular social group.
2. While the ground needs delimiting—that is, it cannot be interpreted to render the other four Convention grounds superfluous—a proper interpretation must be consistent with the object and purpose of the Convention.  Consistent with the language of the Convention, this category cannot be interpreted as a “catch all” that applies to all persons fearing persecution. Thus, to preserve the structure and integrity of the Convention’s definition of a refugee, a social group cannot be defined exclusively by the fact that it is targeted for persecution (although, as discussed below, persecution may be a relevant element in determining the visibility of a particular social group).
3. There is no “closed list” of what groups may constitute a “particular social group” within the meaning of Article 1A(2). The Convention includes no specific list of social groups, nor does the ratifying history reflect a view that there is a set of identified groups that might qualify under this ground. Rather, the term membership of a particular social group should be read in an evolutionary manner, open to the diverse and changing nature of groups in various societies and evolving international human rights norms.
4. The Convention grounds are not mutually exclusive. An applicant may be eligible for refugee status under more than one of the grounds identified in Article 1A(2). For example, a claimant may allege that she is at risk of persecution because of her refusal to wear traditional clothing. Depending on the particular circumstances of the society, she may be able to establish a claim based on political opinion (if her conduct is viewed by the State as a political statement that it seeks to suppress), religion (if her conduct is based on a religious conviction opposed by the State) or membership in a particular social group.
II. SUBSTANTIVE ANALYSIS
A. Summary of State Practice
5. Judicial decisions, regulations, policies, and practices have utilized varying interpretations of what constitutes a social group within the meaning of the 1951 Convention. Two approaches have dominated decision-making in common law jurisdictions.
6. The first, the “protected characteristics” approach (sometimes referred to as an “immutability” approach), examines whether a group is united by an immutable characteristic or by a characteristic that is so fundamental to human dignity that a person should not be compelled to forsake it. An immutable characteristic may be innate (such as sex or ethnicity) or unalterable for other reasons (such as the historical fact of a past association, occupation or status). Human rights norms may help to identify characteristics deemed so fundamental to human dignity that one ought not to be compelled to forego them. A decision-maker adopting this approach would examine whether the asserted group is defined: (1) by an innate, unchangeable characteristic, (2) by a past temporary or voluntary status that is unchangeable because of its historical permanence, or (3) by a characteristic or association that is so fundamental to human dignity that group members should not be compelled to forsake it. Applying this approach, courts and administrative bodies in a number of jurisdictions have concluded that women, homosexuals, and families, for example, can constitute a particular social group within the meaning of Article 1A(2).
7. The second approach examines whether or not a group shares a common characteristic which makes them a cognizable group or sets them apart from society at large. This has been referred to as the “social perception” approach. Again, women, families and homosexuals have been recognized under this analysis as particular social groups, depending on the circumstances of the society in which they exist.
8. In civil law jurisdictions, the particular social group ground is generally less well developed. Most decision-makers place more emphasis on whether or not a risk of persecution exists than on the standard for defining a particular social group. Nonetheless, both the protected characteristics and the social perception approaches have received mention.
9. Analyses under the two approaches may frequently converge. This is so because groups whose members are targeted based on a common immutable or fundamental characteristic are also often perceived as a social group in their societies. But at times the approaches may reach different results. For example, the social perception standard might recognize as social groups associations based on a characteristic that is neither immutable nor fundamental to human dignity—such as, perhaps, occupation or social class.
B. UNHCR’s Definition
10. Given the varying approaches, and the protection gaps which can result, UNHCR believes that the two approaches ought to be reconciled.
11. The protected characteristics approach may be understood to identify a set of groups that constitute the core of the social perception analysis. Accordingly, it is appropriate to adopt a single standard that incorporates both dominant approaches:
a particular social group is a group of persons who share a common characteristic other than their risk of being persecuted, or who are perceived as a group by society. The characteristic will often be one which is innate, unchangeable, or which is otherwise fundamental to identity, conscience or the exercise of one’s human rights.
12. This definition includes characteristics which are historical and therefore cannot be changed, and those which, though it is possible to change them, ought not to be required to be changed because they are so closely linked to the identity of the person or are an expression of fundamental human rights. It follows that sex can properly be within the ambit of the social group category, with women being a clear example of a social subset defined by innate and immutable characteristics, and who are frequently treated differently to men.
13. If a claimant alleges a social group that is based on a characteristic determined to be neither unalterable or fundamental, further analysis should be undertaken to determine whether the group is nonetheless perceived as a cognizable group in that society. So, for example, if it were determined that owning a shop or participating in a certain occupation in a particular society is neither unchangeable nor a fundamental aspect of human identity, a shopkeeper or members of a particular profession might nonetheless constitute a particular social group if in the society they are recognized as a group which sets them apart.
The role of persecution
14. As noted above, a particular social group cannot be defined exclusively by the persecution that members of the group suffer or by a common fear of being persecuted. Nonetheless, persecutory action toward a group may be a relevant factor in determining the visibility of a group in a particular society. To use an example from a widely cited decision, “[W]hile persecutory conduct cannot define the social group, the actions of the persecutors may serve to identify or even cause the creation of a particular social group in society. Left-handed men are not a particular social group. But, if they were persecuted because they were left-handed, they would no doubt quickly become recognizable in their society as a particular social group. Their persecution for being left-handed would create a public perception that they were a particular social group. But it would be the attribute of being left-handed and not the persecutory acts that would identify them as a particular social group.” 
No requirement of cohesiveness
15. It is widely accepted in State practice that an applicant need not show that the members of a particular group know each other or associate with each other as a group. That is, there is no requirement that the group be “cohesive.” The relevant inquiry is whether there is a common element that group members share. This is similar to the analysis adopted for the other Convention grounds, where there is no requirement that members of a religion or holders of a political opinion associate together, or belong to a “cohesive” group. Thus women may constitute a particular social group under certain circumstances based on the common characteristic of sex, whether or not they associate with one another based on that shared characteristic.
16. In addition, mere membership of a particular social group will not normally be enough to substantiate a claim to refugee status. There may, however, be special circumstances where mere membership can be a sufficient ground to fear persecution.
Not all members of the group must be at risk of being persecuted
17. An applicant need not demonstrate that all members of a particular social group are at risk of persecution in order to establish the existence of a particular social group. As with the other grounds, it is not necessary to establish that all persons in the political party or ethnic group have been singled out for persecution. Certain members of the group may not be at risk if, for example, they hide their shared characteristic, they are not known to the persecutors, or they cooperate with the persecutor.
Relevance of size
18. The size of the purported social group is not a relevant criterion in determining whether a particular social group exists within the meaning of Article 1A(2). This is true as well for cases arising under the other Convention grounds. For example, States may seek to suppress religious or political ideologies that are widely shared among members of a particular society—perhaps even by a majority of the population; the fact that large numbers of persons risk persecution cannot be a ground for refusing to extend international protection where it is otherwise appropriate.
19. Cases in a number of jurisdictions have recognized “women” as a particular social group. This does not mean that all women in the society qualify for refugee status. A claimant must still demonstrate a well-founded fear of being persecuted based on her membership in the particular social group, not be within one of the exclusion grounds, and meet other relevant criteria.
Non-State actors and the causal link (“for reasons of”)
20. Cases asserting refugee status based on membership of a particular social group frequently involve claimants who face risks of harm at the hands of non-State actors, and which have involved an analysis of the causal link. For example, homosexuals may be victims of violence from private groups; women may risk abuse from their husbands or partners. Under the Convention a person must have a well-founded fear of being persecuted and that fear of being persecuted must be based on one (or more) of the Convention grounds. There is no requirement that the persecutor be a State actor. Where serious discriminatory or other offensive acts are committed by the local populace, they can be considered as persecution if they are knowingly tolerated by the authorities, or if the authorities refuse, or prove unable, to offer effective protection.
21. Normally, an applicant will allege that the person inflicting or threatening the harm is acting for one of the reasons identified in the Convention. So, if a non-State actor inflicts or threatens persecution based on a Convention ground and the State is unwilling or unable to protect the claimant, then the causal link has been established. That is, the harm is being visited upon the victim for reasons of a Convention ground.
22. There may also arise situations where a claimant may be unable to show that the harm inflicted or threatened by the non-State actor is related to one of the five grounds. For example, in the situation of domestic abuse, a wife may not always be able to establish that her husband is abusing her based on her membership in a social group, political opinion or other Convention ground. Nonetheless, if the State is unwilling to extend protection based on one of the five grounds, then she may be able to establish a valid claim for refugee status: the harm visited upon her by her husband is based on the State’s unwillingness to protect her for reasons of a Convention ground.
23. This reasoning may be summarized as follows. The causal link may be satisfied: (1) where there is a real risk of being persecuted at the hands of a non-State actor for reasons which are related to one of the Convention grounds, whether or not the failure of the State to protect the claimant is Convention related; or (2) where the risk of being persecuted at the hands of a non-State actor is unrelated to a Convention ground, but the inability or unwillingness of the State to offer protection is for a Convention reason.
 See Summary Conclusions – Membership of a Particular Social Group, Global Consultations on International Protection, San Remo Expert Roundtable, 6-8 September 2001, no.2 (“Summary Conclusions – Membership of a Particular Social Group”).
 See UNHCR’s Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (Reedited, Geneva, January 1992), paragraphs 66-67, 77; and see also Summary Conclusions – Membership of a Particular Social Group, no.3.
 For more information on gender-related claims, see UNHCR’s Guidelines on International Protection: Gender-Related Persecution within the Context of Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (HCR/GIP/02/01, 10 May 2002), as well as Summary Conclusions of the Expert Roundtable on Gender-Related Persecution, San Remo, 6-8 September 2001, no.5.
 See Summary Conclusions – Membership of a Particular Social Group, no.6.
 McHugh, J., in Applicant A v. Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, (1997) 190 CLR 225, 264, 142 ALR 331.
 See Summary Conclusions – Membership of a Particular Social Group, no.4.
 See UNHCR’s Handbook, paragraph79.
 See Summary Conclusions – Membership of a Particular Social Group, no.7.
 See UNHCR’s Handbook, paragraph 65.