Following BBC investigation findings that cases of witchcraft accusations have risen significantly in the UK in the last two years, human rights campaigners have called for the UK Government to do more to regulate faith groups, many of whom are believed to be behind such practices.
The Metropolitan Police said there had been 60 crimes linked to belief in witchcraft and spirit possession in London so far this year. It saw reports double from 23 in 2013 to 46 in 2014. More widely, in local councils across the UK, recorded cases rose from 10 in 2012, to 21 in 2013 and 31 in 2014. Given the nature of the crime, these statistics are believed by experts to represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of a widespread phenomenon. Such cases have been widely linked to the Christian and Muslim faith groups where children, women and the disabled are often labelled as being witches or possessed by evil spirits and then forced to undergo “deliverance” or “exorcism” ceremonies, often for a fee.
According to the Executive Director of the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN), Gary Foxcroft: “There are a number of challenges to overcome to put a stop to this practice. The first is at a national policy level there is a complete lack of regulation of the people and practices that are behind these cases. The fact is that most cases primarily arise due to the practices of faith leaders, often in Pentecostal churches. These churches are growing at a phenomenal rate across the UK and most are branches of large mega churches from Africa. Some of these churches are known to promote the idea that children can be witches. Indeed the head of one of the biggest churches in Africa was captured on YouTube slapping a young women and calling her a witch.
There is currently no regulation in place to stop such people from entering the UK and establishing churches. This is clearly something that the government needs to address”. Foxcroft further commented: “Whilst the Home Office has been focusing strongly on preventing Islamic or far-right extremists from entering the UK to spread their hate speech, more needs to be done to prevent such pastors entering the UK and spreading their messages of hate that lead to acts of terror being carried on children and vulnerable people. Preventing such people from entering the UK therefore needs to be prioritised.
Additionally, any places of worship found to be promoting such beliefs and practices in the UK should be shut down and have their assets seized. The Charity Commission in particular needs to show stronger leadership here. Finally, at the local level awareness and understanding is lacking amongst frontline staff. Most practitioners that we have trained express how they find the beliefs in witchcraft and subsequent methods used to deal with them, such as deliverances or exorcisms, deeply challenging issues to work on. Much more needs to be done to address this gap and WHRIN believes that all social workers, police and child protection should receive training on these issues if more cases are to be prevented.” Other campaigners have also focused on the need for more work to be done to challenge the beliefs that lead to children and other vulnerable groups being accused of witchcraft.
Indeed, according to Nigerian Human Rights Campaigner, Leo Igwe, who has worked to raise awareness of the issue facing vulnerable people accused of witchcraft in Africa and Europe: “Any initiative to tackle this problem must include a program that educates and enlightens people to understand that children cannot be witches. The belief that they cause misfortune through witchcraft or magic is mistaken and must be abandoned. Religion or multiculturalism is not, and should not be, an excuse to condone harmful practices in Africa or in migrant communities in the UK.”