African Asylum Claims, the Hermeneutics of Suspicion, and the Reception of the Supernatural in Refugee Status Determination

African Asylum Claims, the Hermeneutics of Suspicion, and the Reception of the Supernatural in Refugee Status Determination

Thursday, 15 October 2015 - 5:00pm to 7:00pm
Venue: 
Pavilion Room, St Antony's College
Speaker(s): 
Benjamin Lawrance (Rochester Institute of Technology)
Series: 
African Studies Seminar

In 2009 a Beninese vodou priest’s adherents kidnapped Dopé and brought her to the atikevodou shrine of Sakpata. Dopé, originally from the village of Cové, was an educated, married woman living in Cotonou. She fled to the US to seek asylum. She believed her experiences were the result of her childhood betrothal as trokosi, a form of indebted curse exacted for her mother’s infidelity. Dopé’s narrative was troubled her lawyers; they feared no judge would consider it plausible or credible. They reframed her claim by documenting misogynistic forced marriage practices and child abuse, child slavery, and the widespread belief in levirate. Her lawyers chose conventional arguments and pursued established precedent as a strategy to avoid foregrounding the discussion of vodou, routinely considered a form of witchcraft by adjudicators. This talk follows the experiences of four women (from Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Ghana), all of whom invoked the supernatural in their asylum claims in the UK and US. Whereas religious persecution is an established basis for refugee status, African asylum seekers who invoke the magic, juju, vodou, and other supernatural terminology face a high threshold to establish the legitimacy of their narratives. The constraints of refugee convention compel lawyers to reformulate witchcraft asylum claims into gender violence claims, and in so doing, the refugee conventions subject terrified individuals to bureaucratic violence.