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Supporting individuals at risk

Each month, we receive, on average, 13 requests for help from individuals across the globe who are at direct threat for and/or unable to live in accordance with their humanist values.

Typically, humanists at risk across the globe report that they have rejected religion and all the associated traditional/conservative norms which have placed constraints on their personal lives, education, or career prospects; they feel trapped by circumstance owing in part to the conservative religious values that they reject. They report having received abuse or been threatened for their beliefs, many have faced ostracism or difficulty in securing employment.

We also work concertedly on cases of individuals who are facing charges or are already imprisoned for their promotion of humanist values and/or non-theistic beliefs. Such work is complex, and as such is carried out over long periods of time. The vast majority of our case work is confidential, and likely to remain so, to respect the individuals’ privacy, and also for their security and protection.

To read more about the challenges faced by the humanist community internationally, read our Humanists at Risk: Action Report 2020, which examines the experiences of non-theists in eight countries.

How does casework actually work?

Step one: Request for assistance

Firstly, we receive a request for assistance. This could come from the individual themselves, a referral from one of our member organisations and associates, or trusted partners working in similar fields.

Step two: Needs assessment, verification and prioritisation

With any request we receive, we set about establishing the facts of the case, clarifying and verifying the details, and conducting a needs assessment. This process is led by the Humanists at Risk Coordinator. Our procedures also contain a crisis plan  for what to do in the event of an urgent crisis.

Integral to our decision making is making sure we have consent to act on someone’s behalf and getting an understanding of the kind of action that might be welcomed. In many cases, it may be harmful for an individual to be publicly associated with a humanist or atheist organisation.

The process of verification can be challenging and lengthy, so while there may be some cases which are straightforward where we can respond relatively quickly, there will be others that will take more time. It can often feel frustrating, and there will be a desire for us to move quickly, but based on our years of experience we know that this verification stage is key, and must be conducted with rigour.

We can’t help everyone at once, so we also have to go through the challenging process of prioritising those individuals at the greatest risk who we know we can help in some way.

Step three: Assistance

Having verified the case and identified how we can help, we take the relevant next steps. This could be reaching out to partner organisations running relocation programmes, it could be securing short-term grants, conducting public or private advocacy on their case, writing letters of support, reaching out to members.

The key is to coordinate to ensure that we are supporting as many people as we can with the right kind of support. We are not always the best placed to provide it.

While in some cases, the need is short term – individuals may need to relocate temporarily until the situation in their hometown calms down, or they may need some funds to tide them over – in others, the support necessary is long-term and often involves behind-the-scenes advocacy, which may not ever be made public.

Step four: Coordination with members & other relevant partners

Where appropriate, we work together with our Member Organizations and local, national, regional and international partners to deliver the support needed.

Step five: Ongoing communication

By keeping lines of communication open, we are able to adapt our strategy as time goes on.

In an ideal world, no one would ever need to come back to us for more support, but we aren’t there yet. Even if we can’t provide the support requested, we can help individuals identify others to contact.

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Our expertise

Humanists International employs a small team of highly experienced staff, many of whom are experts in their field. We also employ the world’s only full-time Humanists at Risk Coordinator, who leads and manages our work in this area, along with a network of consultants, volunteers and members around the world.

We use our contacts and influence as the global representative body of the humanist movement, uniting a diversity of non-religious organisations and individuals. We maintain delegations to the United Nations in Geneva, Vienna, and New York; the Organisation of American States; the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights; the Council of Europe; UNESCO; the European Commission and Parliament and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Our experience

The following information is a snap-shot of the work that we have done from January to July 2020. (Click on the images to learn more)

We helped 45 humanists at risk in 18 countries

Since January 2020, we have provided support to 45 individuals from across the globe, that’s half of those who have reached out to us for help. 

More than a quarter of those we have supported originally come from Pakistan (27,3% to be more exact). This will come as little surprise to those who have read the Humanists at Risk: Action Report 2020 which demonstrates how accusations of blasphemy can lead to death, either through the courts or at the hands of the mob.

As tensions have grown in Nigeria following the arrest of Mubarak Bala and a resulting campaign against atheists, others on the ground have faced increased threats as a result of their advocacy for humanist values and public support for their colleague, Mubarak Bala. 

Who have we helped?

We work concertedly on cases of individuals who are facing charges or are already imprisoned for their promotion of humanist values and/or non-theistic beliefs.

Such work is complex, and as such is carried out over longer periods of time. Almost a quarter of all those we have assisted are currently imprisoned or detained, while yet more are facing protracted legal battles.

We have recently taken up the cases of two individuals in Sri Lanka (Indika Rathnayake and Shakthika Sathkumara) who are facing accusations of having hurt the sentiments of Buddhists in their writings and the possibility of 10 years in prison should formal charges be brought against them. 

Most of those who we have helped over the past seven months are living a double life in order to protect themselves; outwardly simulating what is expected of them by their family or community, keeping their true beliefs to themselves. They wrestle with very real and legitimate fears of the consequences should their lack of faith be exposed. For some, it might be rejection by their family or community, it could mean physical or emotional abuse, for others it could lead to accusations of ‘blasphemy’ or ‘apostasy,’ which carry heavy sentences in many countries. Many report feeling like they are ‘disappearing’ or being ‘hypocritical’ by living a closeted life so far removed from their own values. Living in the closet may have protected them from receiving direct threats, but the fear of exposure and pressure to conform can place a heavy psychological burden.

How have we helped them?

When Humanists International receives such requests, we assess each case based on the individual’s level of risk and our capacity to assist them. While we are able to provide a range of support to individuals at risk, there are limits to what we can provide and how many cases we can support.

We work with the individuals themselves to find opportunities to manage their own risk and to identify the kinds of support that they might need, and what is in their best interest.

While you may be aware of the work we have been doing to support high profile cases such as Mubarak Bala in Nigeria, much of the work we do is not publicly visible.

We have provided the equivalent of £10,943.91 in small grants to help 8 individuals at risk cover legal, medical, travel and living expenses. Where we haven’t been able to support individuals ourselves, we have worked with them to find alternative sources of funding.

In fact, a lot of the support that we are able to provide is in helping individuals identify the most appropriate means of helping them manage their risk.

In some cases, the support we offer is one-off – such as providing advice and referrals to other organisations better placed to help, advising on the process of claiming asylum, identifying local groups who can provide a support network or local women’s shelters. In others, our interventions are longer-term. The longer-term the support, the more wide ranging that support is, this is often because we are more likely to provide long-term support in more serious cases.

Solidarity and emotional support is key to the support we provide. Many individuals reaching out to us are simply seeking a community that shares their values and is able to provide moral support and advice in hard times.

The impact of Covid-19 is being felt by all of us, but our experience suggests that some of those most acutely affected are those who were already at risk of persecution before the outbreak.

Travel restrictions are having a serious impact: many individuals have written to us seeking advice, stranded in a foreign country after their passage to safety was interrupted. Others never made it out before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and fear being ‘sitting ducks’ for would-be assailants. This is especially the case as restrictions on movement lift. Those in prison or detention are being held in conditions liable to increase the spread of the virus, in countries where the pandemic has taken a strong hold. Their health, severely weakened by their treatment in detention and the conditions in which they are held, puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting the virus, should they contract it.

Some might ask why we haven’t been able to help more people in the last seven months. The answer is simple: before we take action on a case, we must work to verify it. This process takes time and resources, both of our staff team and expert volunteers. With the limited resources we have, we must prioritise those most in need of our support.

Since the appointment of our new Humanists At Risk Coordinator, Emma Wadsworth-Jones, in April, our capacity to support individuals at risk has grown considerably. Having a dedicated Humanists at Risk Coordinator will enable us to join up our work, keeping on top of the most urgent cases and coordinating with members of the team,  member organisations, and international partners alike to provide individuals at risk with much needed support.

What can you do to help us?

We know that this is a difficult time for everyone, and we understand that you may not be in a position to support our work financially at this time, but if you can, humanists at risk are in need now, more than ever. Any amount will go towards our work on behalf of individuals at risk. 

Other ways you can get involved, spread the word:

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