Toil and Trouble: Accusations of Witchcraft as a Protection Issue

n January 2009, UNHCR published a paper on witchcraft accusations as a part of the New Issues in Refugee Research series, authored by Jill Schnoebelen. The piece, “Witchcraft allegations, refugee protection and human rights: a review of the evidence,” represents a recognition by UNHCR that accusations of witchcraft can constitute a serious protection problem. The paper outlines conditions under which individuals are susceptible to allegations, historical examples of persecution throughout the world and risk groups (see Jill Schnoebelen, “Witchcraft allegations, refugee protection and human rights: a review of the evidence,” New Issues in Refugee Research No. 169, January 2009).

Witchcraft accusations as a protection problem in refugee settings

While anecdotes of instances of accused witches being harmed in camps exist, few studies have been conducted that directly address the issue. Data is scarce as aid organisations, UNHCR in northern Uganda for example, do not fully compile information regarding accusations of witchcraft. Although certain events, including witchcraft, are considered “supernatural events” and acknowledged to have protection implications for the IDP community, none had been reported at the time of the first UNHCR review on the topic. However, as a UNHCR program officer notes: “if a woman is beaten up because she is believed to be a witch, it is a direct protection problem that is not recorded as a supernatural event, but rather as physical violence against a woman.” Instances of violence against supposed witches have been documented in refugee camps in Tanzania, DRC, the Sudan and elsewhere. While the acts of violence are being recorded by UNHCR, the underlying causes of violence are not necessarily tracked or analysed.

As a result of their displacement, refugees and IDPs are naturally seen as “the other” and are easy targets for accusations of witchcraft. In Jake Phelen and Graham Wood’s study on returns in southern Sudan, one returning Sudanese refugee “accused the Congolese of practicing witchcraft against Sudanese refugees and killing them. Such things did not happen in Sudan he said, ‘but in Congo we were not always accepted and so were easier to kill.’” Even upon return, the displaced may face additional risk. Schnoebelen documents instances of refugees and returnees facing witchcraft related problems: “Sudanese refugees returning from Uganda…are prone to witchcraft allegations because ‘while in exile, it is believed that they adopted [a] new type of witchcraft.’”

The scope of the problem

Accusations of witchcraft are not, however, limited to refugee settings, they are common throughout Africa. For example, a process of “witch-naming” to identify people responsible for the killing of albinos for use in ritual practices reportedly got underway in Tanzania in March. According to the BBC, the process instituted by President Jakaya Kikwete allows for “people to fill in forms anonymously, naming those they suspect of involvement” in the murder of 45 albinos which had occurred in the previous 18 months. Indicative of the problems surrounding the issue of witchcraft in Africa, the process is being met with mixed reviews. Fears of retribution against those making accusations and the possibility of that accusations will be made to further personal vendettas are being weighed against the prospects for success in ending the killings.

It would appear that the violence associated with accusations of witchcraft may be increasing. As Gerrie ter Haar of the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands notes, “[d]ocumentary evidence exists from a large number of African countries indicating that witchcraft accusations are rampant and, in recent years, have led to the unlawful killing, exiling, or imprisonment of many people.”

Such accusations are often targeted at marginalised groups, including women, the elderly, and refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). During displacement as well as upon return, people from the Sudan, Congo, Central African Republic, and other countries have faced persecution as alleged witches. With thousands of accused witches killed in Tanzania since the 1970s and roughly 5,000 women in “witch camps” in search of protection from such accusations in Ghana, the issue is emerging as a continent-wide problem. While the presence of witchcraft allegations is not new to Africa, the recognition of the issue as a threat to protection has received little attention.

Many scholars have attempted to place witchcraft allegations in societal contexts and have theorised that accusations tend to arise during moments of upheaval or difficulty as a result of social, political, or economic factors. In case studies focusing on North America, Europe and Africa, researchers have concluded that links exist between weather, especially heavy rainfall and low temperatures, economic growth, and the prevalence of witchcraft allegations.

Regardless of the cause, those accused of witchcraft face persecution and marginalisation. Police reaction to violence against accused witches is generally insufficient and people who kill supposed witches often enjoy impunity. Since many communities believe that the extermination of witches will increase overall well being, there are often perceived incentives against naming perpetrators of violence against accused witches. Often, if the state or aid organisations attempt to protect witches, they can alienate local populations. As a result, Schnoebelen notes, “[a]ny action taken by governments or aid agencies in an attempt to legislate a solution, must keep the potential consequences – including forcing the action underground – in mind.” For example, the US Department of State has acknowledged, for example, that in Central African Republic extrajudicial violence has been perpetrated against accused witches when local authorities refuse to prosecute or imprison them.

Risk groups

As with many issues in refugee studies and development, women, children, and the elderly are disproportionately affected by accusations of witchcraft. Although boys are often targeted, grown men are typically not victims of witchcraft accusations, although this is not unheard of. Mike Brogden of Lancaster University has theorised that in times of economic hardships, those who are least able to provide economically are marginalised and witchcraft is one method of marginalisation: “Many societies, from the Arctic to the tropics, when they perceive a resource threat to the common good…kill expendable persons, thereby stabilising their conditions. The expendable persons were the very young or the very old.” Witchcraft accusations, therefore, may be societal attempts to decrease burdens on a society as a whole.

In order to combat the murder or expulsion of the elderly in South Africa, the government has established a pension program to “transform them [the elderly] from a net household economic liability into an asset,” and the program has been relatively successful in decreasing the accusations of witchcraft against the elderly. Unfortunately, the prospects of replicating the program in other countries are hampered by the potentially prohibitive costs.

Witchcraft accusations and refugee status

Accused witches are not a well-recognised vulnerable group, and they do not accrue specially recognised rights as such. They do, however, benefit from human rights protections which are available to all people. Their rights to life may be threatened by mob violence, or their due process rights can be violated where witchcraft is criminalised. For example, in the Central African Republic the law criminalises, but does not define, witchcraft, making it very difficult to mount an appropriate defence.

Those who face persecution in this way may flee and seek protection in other countries, but their situation is precarious even in exile. First, there is the problem of showing the link between the violations of their rights and a protected category recognised by the 1951 Refugee Convention. In order to address this, those making claims in some countries of asylum have relied on the categories of “particular social group” and “religion”. In both cases, a critical element of making a successful argument requires shifting the question from the reality of the person’s identity to the perceptions of their attackers. UNHCR Guidelines recognise the constitutive impact of perception, noting that “[a]n individual (or group) may be persecuted on the basis of religion, even if the individual or other members of the group adamantly deny that their belief, identity and/or way of life constitute a ‘religion.’” Even though many accused of witchcraft do not profess to be witches, they may be entitled to protection under international law because the persecution feared is linked to a perception that they adhere to a particular religious or spiritual practice.

Some national authorities have adopted this approach, recognising that individuals need not actually be members of a protected group, if they are perceived as such by their persecutors. Indeed, in a policy paper submitted by the government of Australia to the UNHCR’s global consultations process in 2001, Judge McHugh argued that it was not “necessary that the group should possess the attributes that they are perceived to have.” Referring back to the situation of accused witches in Medieval Europe, he argues, “[w]itches were a particular social group in the society of their day, notwithstanding that the attributes that identified them as a group were often based on the fantasies of others and a general community belief in witchcraft.”

Difficulties may arise, however, with making a successful asylum claim with regard to the fact that the persecution feared is often perpetrated by the community, or even within families; persecution by non-state actors is not recognised as a valid basis for a refugee claim in some states. Even where it is, it is usually necessary to show that the person cannot expect protection from the state, which can be difficult to demonstrate. In addition, some adjudicators have considered the issue of internal flight alternatives – whether the individual could find safety in another part of their own country.

Given the prevalence of accusations of witchcraft and its potential to harm already vulnerable groups, it is important that human rights groups and refugee advocates expand their capacity to understand this phenomenon and monitor its implications for protection.


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