Refugee law and … witchcraft law?

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

When I first learned I would be wWitchcraft Actorking with the Refugee Law Project’s legal aid clinic, I had in mind several types of issues I might be dealing with: refugee status determination and appeals, tenancy law, family law…

Witchcraft certainly wasn’t on the list.

Yet, during interviews and information sessions held prior to and during a recent twelve-day field visit to Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Western Uganda, witchcraft was one of the most pressing legal issues raised by authorities and refugees alike. In fact, when our team of eight legal officers and counselors first arrived at the settlement to introduce ourselves to the Camp Commandant’s office, Uganda’s Witchcraft Act was prominently displayed in various locations, apparently to serve some kind of deterrent effect.

Far from an expert on legal pluralism, I have been racking my brains to remember what my first year Foundations class might have had to say about reconciling something like witchcraft with a modern legal system like the one in place in Uganda. For someone who doesn’t really believe that people can turn into dogs or snakes, or eat another person from a distance, it is hard to imagine how these kinds of allegations could form a basis for any legal action at all. (So I wasn’t surprised to hear from Kyangwali Settlement’s Assistant Camp Commandant that lack of evidence is the principal reason for the few prosecutions under the Witchcraft Act!)

Nonetheless, the practice of witchcraft, whether one believes in it or not, is widespread throughout Uganda’s refugee community and beyond. A number of my clients cited instances of witchcraft as the main threat to their security in Uganda. Child sacrifice for the purposes of witchcraft is an ongoing problem that has recently received a lot of media attention here in Kampala, after the kidnapping and beheading of three young boys.

Correspondingly, the reality of witchcraft has slowly been incorporated into Uganda’s common law legal system. I am told that use of witchcraft is one basis for a provocation defense for murder in Uganda’s criminal law. The Witchcraft Act sets out penalties for those suspected of practicing witchcraft, or for being in possession of items used for witchcraft.

Upon further investigation, our team in the field discovered that a number of the alleged instances of witchcraft in the settlement were actually cases of children dying from malaria, an extremely common and largely preventable and treatable illness. So once again, I am left wondering about the adequacy of a purely legal response to many of the realities refugees here are facing. The whole witchcraft thing is beyond me, but has definitely provided me with some interesting – and very unexpected! – food for thought.

*Internship undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

Band-aids on gaping wounds?

chiaraBy Chiara Fish

Iqaluit (meaning “place of many fish”) – now including this one – is large, well-equipped and very friendly. I am working at Maliiganik Tukisiiniakvik, the legal aid clinic that serves the Baffin region of Nunavut.

I love working here. There is a strong sense of community and people are very welcoming and friendly. It is shockingly beautiful. The apartment in which I am living overlooks Frobisher Bay and everyday I can see the ice melting, the tide coming in and out and the mountains becoming browner as the snow melts. Soon the first ship (an icebreaker) should arrive.

One of the many advantages of working at legal aid in the North is that they throw their student interns directly into the fray. Right now I am focusing on criminal law and later I will work on family law as well. Nunavut unfortunately has the second highest crime rate in Canada, so there is lots of work to do, especially considering the shortage of lawyers. In addition to research, I interview clients before trials and in my third week I began running my own bail hearings. Everyday is different and exciting and full of learning.

Our staff includes one Inuit lawyer and several courtworkers, but most of the lawyers in Iqaluit are white. It is amazing to see how the Inuit courtworkers can interact with the clients as compared to the rest of us. Not only is there a language barrier, but people who are truly part of this community know one another and relate to each other in a way that an outsider cannot. Clearly there is a need for more Inuit lawyers. I do not understand how it is possible that the Akitisraq law school program has been put on hold for lack of funding (Akitsiraq).

I am shocked by the absence of treatment centers in Iqaluit. People are held in custody at Baffin Correctional Center, which is currently at about twice capacity. This must constitute some sort of rights violation, in addition to violating fire and other safety regulations. Yet the system is seemingly unable to address the underlying problems that lead to offences and recidivism.

Given the extremely high rate of alcoholism in Nunavut, it seems absurd that there is no treatment center in the territory. If people want treatment, they must go south – separated from their families, culture, language and support systems. Many of the sentences include a condition that the individual not possess or consume alcohol or other intoxicating substances. In the absence of treatment, it seems absurd to put an alcoholic or drug user on such a condition – they are basically being set up to breach the condition, which can result in jail time and can go on their criminal record.

Sometimes I think it would be more productive to be a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist working up here because then at least one could address the underlying and long-term issues that people face. As one of my colleagues said, often it feels as though we as lawyers are just putting band-aids on gaping wounds. I find it especially difficult to see youth already trapped in the criminal justice system who are angry, unable to express themselves and unable to get the treatment they need. It seems as though we as a society are really failing…

Law as a tool for development?

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

After finishing an undergraduate degree in international development studies, I was eager for some “real field experience”. Sure, I had participated in a number of valuable development-related internships in Canada, but I wanted a taste of how Development (as industry) operates on the ground. In 2006, I headed to Cameroon to participate in a 10-month internship on housing rights. I touched on a wide range of projects over those months, from trainings on income-generating activities for women, to facilitating the commercialization of local produce, to improving an existing microcredit facility, to organizing workshops on gender-based violence, to offering legal information seminars on housing and family law issues.

It was this last experience that ultimately motivated me to study law. Over the course of that year, I was exposed to a number of consultants in various fields passing through the organization and offering their expertise with concrete, tangible results. I felt my background in IDS was insufficient to allow me to make any really meaningful contribution. In particular, I was frustrated by the small scale of the community-based interventions I was involved in, and was discouraged by the lack of immediate results in some of the more policy-oriented initiatives. I felt that law—and community legal services in particular—would be my own “tool” to use to further women’s rights in the international context.

So, four years later, I was thrilled to have been selected for McGill CHRLP’s internship placement at the Refugee Law Project. I have already worked for two legal clinics in Montreal, and love the satisfaction that comes from solving a real human being’s concrete problem. It was a perfect combination of my IDS background and legal skills.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as so much of a shock to me that a few short weeks into my internship, the things that seemed less significant to me in my first overseas experience are the exact ones I find starkly absent in my present placement—namely, small-scale income-generating activities, vocational training programs and microcredit facilities! Not to mention an overarching philosophy of what is trying to be achieved.

On one of my first days, a counsellor at RLP summed up the general feeling of frustration I have since heard echoed by a number of RLP staff: “I refuse to counsel a hungry refugee!”

For someone who had initially been so optimistic about the promise of legal aid in development, this was a disturbing thing to hear. I have been thinking about it more and more: legal aid and psychosocial support is well and good, but is not enough for a person who fails to meet even the basic daily needs of herself and her family. Many refugees wait outside RLP all day without a meal. Many of the children cannot attend school for want of funds for transportation, uniforms and supplies and so instead work as house girls under oftentimes harsh conditions. I have heard the children themselves articulate education as their single biggest priority. As Intake Officer, a majority of my clients’ problems are not really legal, but medical or financial.

Although, admittedly, one organization cannot do everything, perhaps CONGEH did have the right recipe after all: an integrated approach focusing on finding sustainable ways to meet communities’ basic needs first, with some small resources to address individual legal problems in the short-term, but with a greater emphasis on preventing the legal issues from arising through information campaigns. I certainly don’t have an easy answer to this (surely there isn’t one), but now I have an even greater respect for (and am more in tune to) the priorities as identified by refugees, rather than donors.

So while Uganda’s theme for this year’s world refugee day (June 20th) is “Self-Reliance: Life Beyond Relief Aid”, I am perplexed by an almost total lack of services available to Kampala’s refugees to assist them in actually building such a life. For a person who has just lost everything, a start-up loan could go a long way…

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