Witchcraft Accusations as Gendered Persecution in Refugee Law

AuthorSara Dehm,Jenni Millbank
Publication Date01 April 2019
Date01 April 2019
Witchcraft Accusations as
Gendered Persecution in
Refugee Law
Sara Dehm and Jenni Millbank
UTS, Australia
Witchcraft-related violence (WRV), in particular directed towards women and
children, has become a source of increasing concern for human rights organizations
in the current century. Yet for those fleeing WRV, this heightened attention has
not translated across into refugee status. This research examines how claims of
WRV were addressed in all available asylum decisions in English, drawn from five
jurisdictions. We argue that WRV is a manifestation of gender-related harm; one
which exposes major failings in the application of refugee jurisprudence. Inattention
to the religious and organizational elements of witchcraft practices, combined with
gender insensitivity in analysis, meant that claims were frequently reconfigured by
decision makers as personal grudges, or family or community disputes, such that
they were not cognizable harms within the terms of the Refugee Convention; or
they were simply disbelieved as far-fetched. The success rate of claims was low,
compared to available averages, and, when successful, claims were universally
accepted on some basis other than the witchcraft element of the case. This article
focuses in particular upon cases where the applicant feared harm as an accused
witch, while a second related article addresses those fear ing persecution f rom
witches or through the medium of witchcraft.
Gender-related persecution, gendered violence, refugee law, refugee status determina-
tion, religious persecution, witchcraft
Corresponding author:
Jenni Millbank, Faculty of Law, UTS, PO Box 123, Broadway, Sydney, New South Wales 2007, Australia.
Email: jenni.millbank@uts.edu.au
Social & Legal Studies
2019, Vol. 28(2) 202–226
ªThe Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0964663917753725
Witchcraft-related violence (WRV) has become a source of increasing concern for
international human rights and aid organizations through much of the current century
(ActionAid, 2012; Aguilar Molina, 2006; Human Rights Watch, 2017). The US State
Department reports 425 WRV deaths in Tanzania during 2015 alone (US DoS, 2017: 30).
In recent years, the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child and UN
Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discriminati on Against Women have
drawn attention to WRV directed towards women and children in their annual and
country reports (summarized in Hanson and Ruggiero, 201 3: [2.2]) as have the UN
Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-
judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions and the UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights (Alston, 2009, 2012; United Nations Human Rights Council, 2002, 2012, 2016;
United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2009). More recently,
both United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have published a number of
research reports, undertaken training and formed partnerships with local groups to
respond to WRV, including that occurring within UNHCR’s own refugee camps (Bus-
sien et al., 2011; Cimpric, 2010; Dols Garcı´a, 2013; Nwadinobi, 2008; Powles and
Deakin, 2012; Schnoelbelen, 2009). The focus of the international community has been
almost exclusively on African states, although reports frequently acknowledge tha t
WRV is not limited to Africa, and also occurs in Nepal, India, Indonesia, Papua New
Guinea and some Central America states (Crisp, 2008; European Asylum Support
Office, 2015: 2.5; Schnoelbelen, 2009: 22–26).
This increased international attention to WRV has been accompanied by state-
based initiatives that monitor and/or criminalize WRV, and in particular accusations
of witchcraft, within their domestic jurisdictions (Eves, 2017; Forsyth, 2016; Lar-
son, 2011; SALRC, 2016). In parallel, some states in the Global North have also
sought to combat local WRV through legislation, taskforces or policy reform initia-
tives (Bahkt and Palmer, 2015). Within the United Kingdom, a special ‘faith-based’
child abuse unit of the London Metropolitan Police, Project Violet, has existed
since 2005, in response to a series of high-profile deaths of children through exor-
cisms and witchcraft-related rituals (BBC News, 2012, 2014; Schnoebelen, 2009:
29–31; Somos, 2017; Stobart, 2006). Project Violet has contributed to a National
Action Plan concerning responses to child abuse ‘linked to faith or belief’, primar-
ily witchcraft and spirit possession; of which, there are more than 30 documented
cases each year (The National Working Group on Child Abuse Linked to Faith or
Belief, 2012).
Yet this heightened attention to WRV, in particular as a form of persecution that is
directed largely towards women and children (Mgbako and Glenn, 2011), and the
increasingly detailed documentation of the human rights abuses that have resulted from
it, has not translated across into refugee decision-making. This is particularly striking
given that the highest level interpretive guidance offered by UNHCR, the Guidelines on
International Protection, draws attention to witchcraft beliefs and practices in two of its
publications. UNHCR highlights the gendered nature of some forms of religious
Dehm and Millbank 203

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