Accusations of Witchcraft
Section: Refugee Status Determination, Special Issues
Research Person: Administrator
Jean La Fontaine trained in Cambridge and taught at the LSE where she is Professor Emeritus. She has conducted research in Africa and the UK and has written extensively on ritual (especially initiation rituals), gender and kinship, witchcraft and satanism, child abuse and incest. Professor La Fontaine’s publications include: The Gisu of Uganda (1959), Initiation (1985), The Interpretation of Ritual (1972), Sex and Age as Principles of Social Differentiation (1978), City Politics: a Study of Leopoldville 1962-3 (1970), Child Sexual Abuse (1990) and Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England (1998).
Below Dr La Fontaine’s brief introduction to the phenomenon is a list of other specialists on witchcraft and sorcery in various countries who have experience in writing ‘objective’ declarations for asylum cases originating from those countries where they have expertise.
A note from Kingsley Jesuorobo
When dealing with this kind of case, I argue that the particular social group and associated immutable characteristic concepts must benefit from the formula that is used in assessing political opinion. In other words, if political opinion is defined to include a perceived political opinion, then immutable characteristic must always include perceived immutable characteristic. For example, in witchcraft and evil eye cases, I routinely contend that people face persecution not necessarily because they physically possess the alleged or attributed immutable characteristic, but because they are perceived to do so.
Therefore, this group of people are identifiable by virtue of a combination of physical and/or attributed characteristics. Of course, the unifying link between these perceivers or accusers and their targets – witches, evil eyes etc. – is the perception of supernatural power to wreak evil. This is what triggers the persecution.
The distinction between ‘their accusers and not others’ should therefore not arise because there is an almost universal acknowledgement that those so labelled face persecution. It is usually easy to prove – using objective [country of origin] evidence – that society stigmatizes them, and therefore people other than the current ‘accusers’ may join in the perception and the potential persecution. It is sufficient to establish that state protection is inadequate as regards potential persecution.
The persecution of accused witches continues today in communities around the globe. It is particularly prevalent in Africa. It is very important to distinguish between those accused of being witches and people who are often called witch-doctors. The term implies a connection with witches and may be used indiscriminately for traditional healers, magicians, sorcerers, rain-makers, diviners and other magical specialists, indicating ignorance of the differences between these activities. While the term is not normally used by experts, it is common in everyday language, almost always with a negative connotation as the term implies a use of something evil. Sorcerers may be responsible for the murder of individuals in order to use their body parts for powerful magic (known as muti medicine in South Africa), on commission for clients. Children may be targeted as they are easier to capture. Killing of children for magic has been reported in Uganda. The killings are not made for offerings to evil spirits but to obtain body parts and some victims may survive, though badly maimed.
The extent of the killing has been much exaggerated, hearsay evidence from interested charities who are fundraising is not reliable. Police figures may not be comprehensive but give a better indication of the extent of the problem. Normally it is impossible to decide who is at risk but if certain categories of people, like the albino community in Tanzania, are targeted, members of it may go in fear of their lives. If they cross an international border, they could be considered for refugee status. But this phenomenon, reported in South and East Africa so far, is distinct from accusations of witchcraft made against individuals.
Accusations of witchcraft can be made against anyone and although magicians may be thought to use evil magic or sorcery they are not usually accused of being witches. In modern Africa it is often linked with possession by evil spirits but there is no cult of demons. In the Democratic Republic of Congo where reports on children being accused of being witches were first made, the word used for witchcraft is kindoki. This word may be used by Europeans and is often wrongly considered to be widely understood in Africa as well, where there are very many other local terms for forms of witchcraft. Victims of accusations are usually the weak and marginal to the community; they may be young or old, feeble in body or mind with little or no local support. Both men and women, usually elderly, are at risk of accusation and over the past decade children have been increasingly found to be liable to be accused. These children are often living with relatives, or step parents, may be orphaned by war or AIDS; some are merely different in some way, being obstinate, unusually bright or unusually stupid. They may be accused by the pastors of churches, by neighbours or their own parents. Physical abnormalities may put a child at risk of being killed and in some areas may endanger its mother in equal measure. In some places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Delta region of Nigeria, accusations against children have reached epidemic proportions, although two states in the Delta have recently made such accusations illegal. Startling accounts of torture, starvation, abandonment and death involving children and adults have been documented. Accused witches have been executed by hanging, drowning and burning, with paraffin or petrol thrown at them to ignite the fire. Some may be forced to drink ‘medicine’ that has serious, even lethal, effects. In Ghana elderly women accused of witchcraft have been forced into camps where they barely survive. Children have been turned from their homes to survive in the street as best they can; they are then at risk of further abuse or may be picked up by traffickers. Many have been killed, starved to death or died of their injuries.
Those accused of witchcraft may be thought to be possessed by demons and ‘cures’ may be sought through exorcism or deliverance as it is commonly known. Sometimes the pastors who have identified a person as a witch may perform the deliverance for a fee; at others, the accused are taken to pastors who specialise in such deliverance. One Nigerian pastor is known to have made DVDs that encourage people to seek out witch children and bring them for deliverance. The methods used in deliverance vary from church to church but may include violence and even murder. Children who survive may still be disowned by their parents.
Marginalised social groups may be attributed powers resembling witchcraft and this may attract accusations, although it may also give them some protection. This is the case of the Somali Yiber sub-clan (that claims to be one of the lost tribes of Israel) who have a quasi-untouchable status in Somali society, but are able to claim alms/charity from the majority. The implications for refugee protection in this case are less clear. They may have a well-founded fear of persecution (the standard for refugee status) or perhaps they are just discriminated against, not because of their presumed witchcraft but because of their quasi-pariah status.
Children who have been trafficked or abused may also have been victims of witchcraft accusations but care should be taking in asking about what has been a highly traumatic experience. The events subsequent to such accusations may provide support for a claim to asylum or refugee status but trafficked children may not even know the name of their home village or local area. The victims of accusations of witchcraft have usually suffered serious violations of their human rights amounting to persecution which can form the basis for a claim for refugee status. A return to their homeland is likely to result in further persecution, even death. Expert witnesses can provide evidence of this.
UNHCR’s Policy Development and Evaluation Service have created a ‘Witchcraft, Displacement and Human Rights’ blog to record and share materials including news items (which may not be reliable). These materials may be of use to those who are defending persons who are claiming asylum on these grounds. Those wishing to contribute articles, news, and research to be posted on this blog should send materials to Maria Riiskjaer at email@example.com. The blog may be viewed at: http://maheba.wordpress.com.
In addition The Royal Anthropological Institute can give advice on finding anthropologists with expertise in the area: email firstname.lastname@example.org and Inform, a charity that collects and distributes material on new religions, can provide reliable information on witchcraft in the diaspora, email: email@example.com.
WHRIN launched what may be the first ever report into the global scale of witchcraft accusations and persecution, muti killings and human sacrifice at the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council. See full report here.
Specialists on Witchcraft
Dr Adam Ashforth
Adam Ashforth is Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. He is a graduate of the Universities of Western Australia and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar (Australia-at-Large, 1979). Before coming to Michigan he taught at Northwestern University in the departments of Anthropology, Political Science, and Sociology. For nearly ten years prior to that he was in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, first as a Visiting Member and then in a specially created faculty position as a Visiting Associate Professor. He has also taught at the City University of New York and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Ashforth is renowned for his work on witchcraft and spiritual insecurity in Africa, based on more than a decade’s fieldwork in Soweto, South Africa. For the past seven years he has also been researching issues regarding witchcraft, particularly in relation to the AIDS epidemic, in Malawi and Botswana.
Ashforth has published three books and numerous articles in leading journals. His last book, Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa (published by the University of Chicago Press) was awarded the 2005 Herskovits Prize for the best book on Africa, the premier award in African Studies, and the Toyin Falola Award of 2006. His book Madumo, A Man Bewitched (Chicago, 2000) is a staple in university courses on Africa, anthropology, religion, and many other disciplines. His work on spiritual insecurity in Africa is influential in a wide variety of fields, including law, religion, and public health as well as in core disciplines of the social sciences. He has held fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Sciences Research Council, the Macarthur Foundation, and the H.F. Guggenheim Foundation, as well as the Institute for Advanced Study.
Dr Hermione Harris
Tel: +44 (0)2 07 22 66 465
Hermione Harris is a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University (SOAS) from where she obtained a doctorate in Social Anthropology. She has spent many years working on ethnic minorities in Britain, particularly the Nigerian diaspora. Her special interest is in Nigerian religious practice, the subject of various publications including Yoruba in Diaspora: an African Church in London. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2006. This includes a study of the concept of spiritual power, and its relevance to the phenomena of witchcraft and juju, as well as its centrality in Pentecostal Christianity.
She has acted as an expert witness in various cases concerning the Nigerian community in Britain, including social care, FGM, autism and witchcraft. The majority of these cases centre on the question of the trafficking of Nigerian girls and young women into the UK for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and an analysis of the juju rituals to which they have been subjected to ensure their compliance. A chapter on this topic, Sex Work and Ceremonies, will be published by Ashgate in 2014.
Professor Kjersti Larsen
Kjersti Larsen is Professor at the Department of Ethnography at the University of Oslo. Professor Larsen has conducted significant research on the topic of witchcraft and has published a series of articles on the issue in Africa.
Dr Benjamin N. Lawrance
Benjamin N. Lawrance is the Conable Chair in International Studies at Rochester Institute of Technology. He has conducted field research in West Africa since 1997 and published extensively about political and social conditions. He has served as an expert witness in the asylum cases for over 130 West Africans in the US, Europe and Canada which have involved human trafficking, citizenship, statelessness, female genital cutting, gender issues, gender identity, ethnic and religious violence, and witchcraft accusations.
Dr Isak Niehaus
Dr Niehaus is an expert on witchcraft beliefs and accusations in South and Southern Africa. He obtained a PhD in social anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand in1997 and currently teaches anthropology at Brunel University in the United Kingdom. He is the author of two major monographs and of about fifty other publications on witchcraftbeliefs and related topics. He has served as an assessor and as an expert witness in court cases involving witchcraft in South Africa.
Dr Anita Schroven
Dr. Schroven is a researcher at Conflict and Integration in the Upper Guinea Coast, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. She has served as expert witness in over 20 asylum cases involving issues such as FGC/M, ethnic and religious violence, political persecution, and witchcraft accusations. She has been researching in West Africa since 2004, and in Guinea specifically since 2006, addressing state-society relations, citizenship, political, ethnic and national identities, gender relations and women’s rights.
Dr Koenraad Stroeken
Koen(raad) Stroeken is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and African studies at Ghent University. He did two years of fieldwork in a Tanzanian village. Initially surprised about the ongoing relevance of witchcraft beliefs, he tried to unravel its causes and since 1995 has worked with Sukuma traditional healers and their patients, mainly studying their witch-constructs and medicinal as well as ritual remedies. His articles have dealt with sensorial anthropologies and the relation between cosmology, medicine, peace and conflict. He recently published the monograph, Moral Power: The Magic of Witchcraft, in the Berghahn Books series of Epistemologies of Healing.
Dr Mattia Fumanti
Mattia Fumanti teaches social anthropology at the University of St Andrews, UK, in the department of social anthropology. After completing his PhD on political and generational transformations in a Namibian town (Manchester 2005), Mattia Fumanti has conducted research among Ghanaian migrants in London on an ESRC-funded project ‘New African Migrants in the Gateway City: Ethnicity, Religion, Citizenship’, directed by Professor Pnina Werbner, Keele University. The research has explored African ethnicity as it is currently evolving in contemporary Britain, with particular emphasis on the incorporative role of churches and religious identities in creating the ground for active citizenship. Part of this research aimed to explore the significance of transnational and religious networks between Ghana and the diaspora. For this reason in 2007 and 2010 he conducted ethnographic research in Kumasi and Accra in different churches. He has published widely on this topics and he is currently editing a film on current religious practices in Ghana. He is willing to provide COI on migration, transnational families, witchcraft and citizenship.
Tel: +44 74 03 97 39 64
Gary Foxcroft is an award-winning human rights advocate and social entrepreneur with over ten years experience of establishing and managing organisations in UK and Nigeria. As the co-founder of the charity – Safe Child Africa (previously Stepping Stones Nigeria) – which was established in 2005, he has developed particular expertise in the fields of education and witchcraft accusations. This has led to Gary being widely consulted by UN bodies such as UNHCR and OHCHR, presenting key note addresses at international conferences, providing interviews for media houses and being consulted as an expert witness in a number of asylum and refugee cases. In 2012, he also established the Witchcraft and Human Rights Network (WHRIN).
James Ibor, Barrister
James Ibor is a lawyer based in Calabar, Cross River Sate, Nigeria. He is the Executive Secretary for the NGO Basic Rights Counsel Initiative (BRC) and is currently working on the Niger Delta Child Rights Watch (NDCRW) Project funded by Safe Child Africa and supported by the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales.
The NDCRW Project aims to raise awareness about child abuse in the Niger Delta region by increasing the number of prosecutions of those who commit offences against children. The Child Rights Act 2003 now makes harming a child illegal and protects children by affirming their legal right to be safe from harm. James Ibor represents children in all cases of child abuse including accusations of witchcraft, physical and sexual abuse, neglect and abandonment, child trafficking, child prostitution and sexual exploitation.
Witchcraft and Human Rights Network (WHRIN)
Contact person: Gary Foxcroft
WHRIN promotes awareness and understanding of human rights violations that are committed around the world due to the belief in witchcraft. We strive to help communities around the world access information and find solutions to complex problems in order to ensure that further human rights abuses do not take place.
Click here to view redacted case.
The Evil Eye Belief Among the Amhara of Ethiopia
This article by Dr Ron Reminick, psychological anthropologist at Cleveland State Universitym is not only specific to this particular group, but offers a general explanation of the belief that exists throughout southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, as well as certain groups and individuals in the U.S.
Dr. Ron Reminick, Associate Professor, Dept. Anthropology, Cleveland State University.