Humanists, who are fleeing persecution, can be granted asylum and some protection in Western countries. This is some good news. But we must ensure that this facility is put to a good use. Based on experiences from Nigeria, mere identification as a humanist by an asylum seeker is not enough.
Humanist leaders and asylum authorities must be vigilante, they must synergize to ensure that this facility is not abused. They should avoid a situation where asylums are granted to opportunists or those who game the system. With the harsh economic situation, poverty, wars, and conflicts, many people are migrating to live overseas. So there is a tendency of abuse, a likelihood that persons who are not humanists and who desperately want to relocate would claim to be humanists in order to be get a stay.
There is a high probability that visitors to Europe, not the Middle East, who do not want to return to their countries would claim to be humanists fleeing persecution and use that as a pretext to get a stay. Some people who want to avoid deportation from European countries such as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, or Norway, not from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, or Qatar could seek protection by identifying as ‘humanists’, when they are not. Let us consider some experiences from Nigeria.
Humanist organizing has been going on in Nigeria for decades. The organization of humanists happens in risky, and dangerous situations. The association has been connecting and supporting humanists, providing them a sense of community and fellowship. The humanist community has been extending a sense of solidarity to all nonreligious persons, including those who have remained in the closets because they could be murdered, if they went open and public with their nontheistic and nonreligious views and positions.
One of the duties of the association and its leaders is to ensure the safety and security of humanists, atheists, and other nonreligious persons in the country. And the association fulfills this duty to those who identify as humanists while living in Nigeria. But there is a new development. Some Nigerians claim to be ‘humanists’ when they want to relocate abroad or to secure a legal stay in Europe. And this category of ‘humanists’ presents a challenge.
Cases of these supposed humanists have been referred to the association or its officers in the last four years. These cases were from northern Nigeria, where a prominent member of the association was arrested and later jailed for blasphemy. Many humanists from Northern Nigeria went underground following the arrest of Mubarak Bala in 2020. The humanist association used mechanisms to support members who suffer threats and persecution.
Thanks to local management of the situation, the tension has subsided in the region. Some international organizations have been helpful and provide extra support whenever needed. In all but one case (Mubarak Bala), asylum or relocation overseas has not been an option because the humanist association and its allies believe that local options have to be exhausted before considering any international facility like an asylum.
In one case, someone who claimed to be a humanist from northern Nigeria but seeking asylum in the UK contacted a local humanist officer. Like other asylum seekers, she wanted a support letter certifying her claims that she was a humanist and could be attacked or killed if she returned to Nigeria. The humanist officer did not know about this individual and could not vouch for her claims. As we all know, few humanists are open and public in Nigeria. The rest quietly go about their business in most cases as nominal believers. The person in question was not a known or active humanist of the humanist community anywhere in Nigeria. So, it was difficult to pen a support letter corroborating her claims. No one knows if the asylum was granted or not. But sources close to the asylum seeker said she was unhappy over the refusal of the humanist officer to send a support letter.
In a related development, an international organization referred two cases to the association and its officers. These so-called humanists were living in Nigeria and claimed that they were accused of blasphemy. They wanted to relocate overseas because they claimed their lives were in danger. The association received this request in 2020 and 2021, when travels were restricted due to COVID-19. It was not clear how the said organization knew these individuals were humanists because nobody within the local humanist organization or its allies knew these individuals as humanists or atheists beyond their saying they were. That is why caution must be exercised, and the decision process must be rigorous and evidence-based. That one is critical of Islam does not make one a humanist, does it?
Experiences show that many Muslims are critical of aspects of Islam. Many Christians campaign are critical of the Pope and Catholic teachings. Does that make them atheists or agnostics? Since these cases did not originate from a local member or group, they were sent to humanist contacts in the region for verification. The humanist association has members and allies across the country, in Bornu, Benue, Kano, Kaduna, Yobe etc. They help to fact-check claims of persecution or abuse.
In one case, after some inquiry, it was evident that the person suffered some damage and loss. Fanatics destroyed the personal belongings because he made comments that islamists deemed offensive. The person wanted to relocate overseas but later accepted the option of local relocation. However, about a year after receiving the support, this guy, who claimed to be a humanist, wrote, informing the humanist officer that he was returning to Islam. And he did.
Meanwhile the other case took a different turn. The lady refused to cooperate and comply with the verification process. The process was required for the management of cases referred to the association. The lady made claims of police arrest, threats, and harassment; that she was accused of blasphemy, that police officers surrounded her house, were following her around, etc. When asked for more details, she could not provide any solid evidence for her claims. She kept sending alarming messages to her overseas contacts, who knew little or nothing about the local situation, claiming that she was in danger, at risk of being charged with blasphemy by the police or being murdered by Muslim fanatics.
There was no police report to support her claims, no police stations or officers named, and no photo evidence for her case. She sent the humanist officer a Facebook post where someone made some mark on her photo. At a point, she stopped picking up calls and answering requests to provide more information. Even at that, she was given the option of a local relocation to Abuja for six months. But she sent a budget that was twice the amount granted to the guy who later returned to Islam. And the budget included some money for police clearance and escort! After some inquiry, her claims were found to lack merit and credibility. It was obvious that the lady wanted to relocate overseas by hook or crook. The humanist association later learned that, with the help of some international organizations who believed her story, she traveled to the Netherlands, where she sought and was granted asylum.
While the humanist association will continue to support humanists who suffer persecution and abuse, including their asylum applications, we must make sure that the support goes to the right persons, to humanists who need it, not to the random persons who want asylum.
The Humanist Association is a life-stance organisation, not an asylum-granting agency. The humanist community has limited resources. Every support that goes to a wrong person is some support to a right person somewhere that has been wasted or denied. While we must exercise compassion towards asylum seekers, we must also be critical of their claims. We must make sure that the claims are based on facts and evidence. That the claims are verified and substantiated. The support for asylum seekers and applications should not be based on sentiments.
We must bear in mind that asylum seekers are in a very desperate situation. To secure an asylum, seekers say whatever is useful, they claim whatever would make them get a stay, not necessarily what is true. Asylum seekers claim anything, and could claim to be anything, including a humanist, to avoid being deported. International organizations and asylum granting agencies must sit up. They should eschew arrogance and learn to consult and work with local actors to ensure that they are not misled that the asylum facility is accorded to applicants who merited it, not those who would claim to be humanists for asylum purposes, only to later return to religion or theism after the asylum application had been granted. This development sends very wrong signals.
For instance, the lady in question claimed that if she returned to Nigeria, ‘they’ would kill her. The question is: who will kill her? The police? Muslim fanatics? Where? Indeed, real allegations of blasphemy could lead to incarceration or death. But there is no evidence that she was accused. There was no proof of a formal charge against her anywhere. There is no evidence that the police charged her with blasphemy or that her life was in danger as claimed.
By the way, many people who called for the release of Mubarak Bala or opposed allegations of blasphemy were threatened with arrest and prosecution. And if that suffices for an asylum, then millions of Nigerians, including Christians who live in Boko haram territories, are qualified to be granted asylum. Incidentally, beyond the Facebook screenshot, there was nothing else she presented to substantiate her claims. How she made a strong case for asylum remains an open question.
So local and international humanist organizations must be on alert and rally against the abuse of the asylum system by unconscionable individuals who claim to be humanists. We need a robust and rigorous system to assess relocation or asylum claims of applicants who claim to be humanists. We need to make sure that asylum is granted to individuals who merit and deserve it. Many humanists in Nigeria, and other parts of Africa live and operate in risky and dangerous situations. They need support and protective mechanisms. We must make sure that these mechanisms are there for them, that the asylum facility goes to humanists who genuinely need it, not those who claim to be humanists in order to get a stay in Europe.
Leo Igwe is a humanist from Nigeria. He can be reached via email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.