For some people, the word ‘witch’ conjures up a character in childhood fairy-tales and fables; a wicked and often fearsome female figure.
But in many countries, the reality of witches and witchcraft is a far cry from this stereotyped or fictional image.
Across 19 African nations, one in five people believe in witchcraft. Similar beliefs exist, to a lesser extent, in countries across Asia and the Pacific.
This is more than just a curious fact. Witchcraft forms an integral part of everyday life in many parts of the world. Fear of witchcraft and witchcraft related violence and persecution is very real and can lead people to flee their homeland to seek safe haven elsewhere.
UTS Law academics, Professor Jenni Millbank and Dr Anthea Vogl have been researching the issue and looking at how these fears are treated in determining the refugee status of asylum seekers in a number of receiving countries.
When determining if someone qualifies as a refugee, the UNHCR Convention grounds are used – one of the criteria is religion but there is no clear definition of what constitutes religion so too often witchcraft is excluded as a legitimate determining factor.
There’s also the problem that refugee decision-makers are often unaware of the cultural significance of witchcraft as a form of religion in a refugee’s home country leading them to interpret the notion of witches and fear of witchcraft related violence as fantasy.
This then flows through to the assessment of the well-founded or objective aspect of the fear, because the failure to identify witchcraft as a system of belief or social practice, means that the organised, political or institutional nature of the feared persecution is lost.
The researchers recommendations include overhauling the Religion ground within the Refugee Convention. They argue this would ensure legitimate claimants with very real fears are not denied refugee status, just because decision-makers in western states cannot ‘accept the possibility of other possibilities’ in a world beyond our own experience.