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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Asylum for Witches

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Just in time for Halloween, the Witchcraft & Human Rights Information Network (“WHRIN”) has released a report called "Witchcraft Accusations and Persecution; Muti Murders and Human Sacrifice." The report was prepared for the United Nations Expert Workshop on Witchcraft and Human Rights, which was held last month, and it discusses the wide-spread and under-reported human rights problems related to witchcraft and other harmful traditional practices. From the WHRIN report--

In numerous countries around the world, harmful witchcraft related beliefs and practices have resulted in serious violations of human rights including, beatings, banishment, cutting of body parts, and amputation of limbs, torture and murder. Women, children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, such as persons with albinism, are particularly vulnerable. Despite the seriousness of these human rights abuses, there is often no robust state led response.

The report indicates that the “exact numbers of victims of such abuses is unknown and is widely believed to be underreported.” “At the very least,” the report continues, “it is believed that there are thousands of cases of people accused of witchcraft each year globally, often with fatal consequences, and others are mutilated and killed for witchcraft-related rituals.” The number of cases—and the level of violence against victims--seems to be rising, and no area of the world is immune, though most of the documented cases are found in India (120 reported cases in 2016), Nigeria (67 cases), Zimbabwe (29), and South Africa (28).

This is all very sobering, and sad. In my work, I have represented a number of victims of traditional practices who have filed for asylum in the United States. One memorable case involved a young man from Rwanda who was gay. His family decided that he was possessed by demons, and so they had him kidnapped and held in a rural area where he was subject to a three-week exorcism ritual by some type of priest. The ritual involved beatings and starvation, among other things. We argued that all this amounted to past persecution on account of a particular social group—gay people. The government accepted our argument and approved the man’s application for asylum.

The success of our case was due, perhaps, to the fact that our client easily fit within a protected category for purposes of asylum (there are five protected categories—race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and particular social group, and under U.S. law, it is well-established that LGBT individuals can constitute a particular social group; unless a case fits within a protected category, asylum will be denied). Not all victims of witchcraft-related persecution fit so neatly into the asylum scheme, as the WHRIN report makes plain—

Those accused of witchcraft, or at risk of such accusations, are not a well-recognised vulnerable group [under the asylum law], and they do not accrue specially recognised rights as such. They do, however, benefit from human rights protections which are available to all people. Those who face persecution in this way may flee and seek protection in other countries, but their situation is precarious even in exile.

The WHRIN report primarily discusses British law, but asylum applicants in the U.S. could face a similar problem. I have not seen a case where “witches” or “people accused of witchcraft” has been found to be a particular social group (“PSG”) for purposes of asylum, but it seems that a strong argument could be made in favor of such a PSG. Persecution of “witches” might also be couched in terms of imputed religion—maybe the persecutors view the alleged witch in religious terms and would harm her for that reason. If there is an ethnic or racial component to the persecution, that might also allow the applicant’s case to fit into a protected category.

Besides witchcraft, the WHRIN report discusses other harmful traditional practices: Human sacrifice and murder for body parts, which are used in certain magic rituals (sometime called Muti murder). People with albinism are particularly vulnerable to such attacks (I wrote about that here), and they would likely constitute a PSG under U.S. asylum law. But other people targeted in this way might not easily fit into a PSG.

To win asylum, the applicant must show that she faces harm “on account of” a characteristic that the applicant herself possess (for example, her race) or on a characteristic that the persecutor “imputes” to the victim (for example, maybe the persecutor incorrectly believes the applicant is a government opponent and seeks to harm her for that reason). In the case of some traditional practice, the victim may not be able to show that the harm is “on account of” a characteristic or an imputed characteristic, and then asylum would be denied. In our exorcism case, for example, we had a relatively easy job, since our client was gay and was harmed due to his sexual orientation. But what if he was not gay and he was being "exorcised" for some other reason--maybe he was an unruly child and his parents wanted to "cure" him? Such a case would present a real challenge under U.S. asylum law.

Fortunately, there are some resources available. The WHRIN is the obvious starting point. The Forced Migration Current Awareness blog also has a list of resources, and UNHCR has a comprehensive report about witchcraft accusations against children. Given the severity of the harm and the likelihood that the problem is spreading, it seems to me that more work needs to be done in this area. The recent attention from the UN is a good start. Hopefully, we will see those efforts continued and expanded.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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Comments

  1. JDzubow's Avatar
    Judging by your comment, the US already has plenty of uneducated, irresponsible clowns. Ironic, isn't it?
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