Nonsense Of The Month: April 2024

This month, to illustrate parts of the administrative kafkaesque nightmare faced by migrants going through the asylum procedures in Greece, we would like to talk about the case of Marie (name changed) one of LCL clients. 

With Orthodox Easter celebrations just behind us, many old traditions and beliefs were on display all over Greece. For instance, on Chios island, two towns shoot thousands of small rockets at the other church towers in an attempt to hit the bells, causing fires and injuries. In another tradition called “koukoures”, big bonfires are built in the central squares of many towns and villages in Greece, over which an effigy of Judas is hanged and burned, as a symbol of punishing Judas for his betrayal of Jesus.

You might ask yourself why we are writing about this. Well, the answer is that we wanted to highlight the systematic discrimination shown by the Greek Asylum Service towards others’ traditions and beliefs, and in particular when considering customs and cults from West African countries as a reason for persecution. To illustrate this further, let us delve into the story of Marie, one of LCL’s clients from Sierra Leone.

Marie recently experienced the great disappointment of not being believed about her own society’s traditions and faith. As it is common in Sierra Leone, Marie’s mother and grandmother were part of one of the many Secret Societies in the country. 

Secret Societies are associations in which membership and rituals are usually secret and the ancient knowledge is shared only with initiated members. The recruitment and initiation process of these Secret Societies, who are mostly separated by gender, are often extremely violent, including torture and Female Genital Mutilation (see for instance our nonsense from last month on this issue), and other forms of mental and physical force. Importantly, those who have started their initiation are forbidden to talk about what they have learned. Oftentimes, they are given ointments or drinks that are claimed to cause swelling of the stomach or other symptoms that may cause death, if the people to be initiated are to speak about anything regarding the Secret Society or the initiation process.

When Marie’s mother died, Marie’s grandmother (a spiritual leader in Marie’s town), announced that Marie was chosen by the spirit as the one that should succeed her mother. Marie, after being hunted down in the town where she was attending university, and forcibly brought to her grandmother’s village was forced to partake in her initiation to take her mother’s place. Using the element of surprise, she managed to run away from the ceremony, and was able to later flee the country. 

After this incident, she received many calls from her grandmother, threatening her that if she did not complete the initiation she would be killed by the spirit and that Marie would be forced to join the Society if she wanted to avoid her fate. Marie, who had already once been forcibly taken from her home by members of the Society, was understandably fearful that if she remained in Sierra Leone, she would be hunted down again. Importantly, Sierra Leone’s police force refuses to get involved in Secret Society business and refuses to protect people who are persecuted by Secret Society members. This is because most high ranking politicians and police men in Sierra Leone are themselves members of the Societies. Since Sierra Leone is a rather small country, and families are often spread out all over the country, there is nowhere in the country to flee the influence of the Secret Societies, forcing those who refuse to join to leave the country. As such, they, in many cases, fulfil all of the legal requirements to be considered as refugees.

Nevertheless, the Greek Asylum Service rejected Marie’s asylum claim based on the fact that she could not rationally explain the decision of the spirit to select her as a leader, nor could she explain with sufficient detail the traditions of a Society that she fled. 

The question is: how would you rationally explain decisions that were announced by a spiritual leader as fact, or customs that are by definition secret? For outsiders, some customs, traditions and faiths may appear strange, irrational or even not credible. Yet, this does not make them any less real for the person holding them. More importantly, it does not change the very real and well-founded fear of persecution people might face because of these traditions and their refusal to join a Society, which would harm them or force them to harm themselves or others.

The tendency by the Greek Asylum Service to reject asylum seekers from African countries who have fled their countries because of forced initiation and integration to Secret Societies, like Marie, as well as other cults such as voodoo or black magic, is showing a blatant disregard for the law and discredits faith and beliefs that are different from Western norms. The handling of such cases is nothing short of hypocritical and suggests that they are racially motivated. 

To be clear: we are not asking the Asylum Service to believe in the traditions of Secret Societies, voodoo or black magic. We simply ask the Greek Asylum Service to recognise that persecution can take many forms, regardless of whether we share beliefs with people fleeing harm in these different contexts. We ask that the Greek Asylum Service recognises that Secret Societies in Sierra Leone and other West African countries, as well as other cults such as voodoo or black magic can and do target people through forced recruitment, torture, and sexual and other forms of violence – creating situations for people that amount to well-founded fears of persecution.

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