Supporting individuals at risk during a pandemic

Humanist International Board Member, Leo Igwe, reflects on the work that we do to #ProtectHumanistsAtRisk, the challenges of the past two years and our successes

  • blog Type / Casework blog
  • Date / 13 January 2022
  • By / Leo Igwe

In April 2020 – at the height of the UK’s first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic – Emma Wadsworth-Jones joined the team at Humanists International as the new Casework & Campaigns Manager, responsible among other things for leading our work to support Humanists at Risk across the globe. A day later, Mubarak Bala was arrested.

While supporting individuals at risk always comes with its challenges; the pandemic served to add to them. More than half of the people who contact us are seeking to relocate, often abroad where they hope to claim asylum. The possibility of relocation, even internally, was suddenly unavailable; embassies shuttered their doors, borders closed, entire nations went into lockdown. Those seeking my support were trapped.

Those trapped in households unwelcoming of their beliefs – the majority of those who reached out to us – were placed at greater risk; with no form of escape many reported feeling suicidal. Those who faced threats from individuals outside of their family unit, in contrast, were actually safer. As their would-be assailants’ movements were constrained by the same limitations of movement brought about by the imposition of restrictions by governments seeking to curb the spread of the virus. As restrictions eased, we saw this pattern reverse.

Over the last 21 months, we have received more than 450 requests for help from individuals from more than 50 different countries as far afield as Afghanistan to Brazil. Not all of them turned out to be legitimate – some conflate the term ‘humanist’ with ‘humanitarian’ for example – but the vast majority of them have been; non-religious individuals unable to live a life true to their values, either because of norms imposed upon them by society at large, or individuals. They face isolation, discrimination in employment, threats, attack, prosecution, imprisonment and even, occasionally, death.

Yet, it seems that the persecution that the non-religious face is not understood to be as significant as that of our religious counterparts, so travelling abroad and claiming asylum is not as easy an option as it might first appear. More on this another time.

We have found encouragement in the work of our Members and Associates across the globe, who lend a hand of solidarity to those seeking help; who run hotlines, counselling services, provide legal support, support asylum claims, conduct advocacy or campaign for those that seek their help, or who refer cases that they are not equipped to handle to our Casework and Campaigns Manager.

As a result, we have provided support big or small to some 234 individuals. The vast majority of our work has been to help advise those who reach out to us or direct them to others better placed to help. However, we have also disbursed £29,369.94 in small grants to help cover the costs of relocation, legal fees, medical costs or general living costs, as well as helping them to find funding from other sources. We have also supported 12 individuals in their attempts to relocate resulting in 3 successful appeals of asylum cases, 2 successful applications for resettlement. We have created resources for those who reach out to us, and sought funding to provide training in physical, digital and psychosocial security to some of our most at-risk Members and Associates. We have raised awareness of the dangers the non-religious face through our advocacy, campaigning and reports such as the Freedom of Thought Report or Humanists at Risk Report.

71% of those to whom we have provided in-depth support (such as asylum support letters, emergency grants, or campaigning) report seeing positive developments in their situation. The remainder report that little has changed tangibly, but change takes time and we remain hopeful.

We couldn’t do the work we have without your support. Together, we have raised more than £43,000 to support this work. I want to thank you for this, but I think that there is no better way to do that than through the words of those you have helped us support:

On behalf of all of those you have helped to support, I would like to say thank you.

Protect Humanists at Risk

If you believe every humanist should have the right to a life free from persecution, please show your solidarity and support with a donation to our annual fundraiser today. With your support, we can continue to help as many people as possible in the weeks and months ahead.

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