Lest you thought that persecution of witches was last seen in Salem, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has produced a fascinating and disturbing research paper on modern-day witchcraft allegations. These charges, levied primarily against women (particularly the elderly) as well as children, can result in horrifying abuse, including torture, starvation, abandonment, and even death. Contemporary claims of witchcraft circle the globe, from Bolivia to Cambodia to the Democratic Republic of Congo; from Ghana to Haiti to India.
The paper examines witchcraft allegations in refugee camps and situations of refugee repatriation and integration, drawing an interesting link between situations of crisis and witchhunts. In Salem, the witch trials were situated in military and political crises similar to those faced by refugees today, as the town sat near the front lines of an armed conflict between colonials and Native Americans. So it is that we see similar allegations in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo that have suffered through decades of war. Contemporary witchcraft accusations often offer those in situations of severe crisis -- be it civil war, extreme poverty or environmental disaster -- an opportunity to express feelings of envy, fear, hatred, and jealousy in particularly violent ways.
So what's the solution? Apart from the obvious and difficult task of moderating crisis situations, legislatures can outlaw witchcraft allegations and violence against those accused of being witches and international organizations and NGOs can raise awareness among their staff of the dangers of such claims and consequent need for protection. Witchcraft accusations should be taken seriously as grounds for asylum, given the very real persecution faced by subjects of witchhunts.