NEW YORK - People with albinism in Malawi are at risk of "systemic extinction" due to relentless attacks fueled by superstitions, the United Nations' top expert on albinism said Friday on her first official visit in her new role.
At least 65 cases of violence against people with albinism — including killings and dismemberment — have been recorded by police in Malawi since late 2014, said Ikponwosa Ero, the U.N.'s independent expert on human rights and albinism.
People with albinism live in danger in regions of the world where their body parts are valued in witchcraft and can fetch a high price. Superstition leads many to believe albino children bring bad luck.
In Malawi, where people with albinism number around 10,000 out of a population of around 16.5 million, the situation amounted to "an emergency, a crisis disturbing in its proportions," she said.
Some of the Malawians with albinism she met compared their ordeal to that of endangered species in the wild, Ero told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Malawi.
She said people with albinism are "an endangered people group facing a risk of systemic extinction over time if nothing is done."
"We talk about protecting wildlife while not even prioritizing efforts in protecting people with albinism," she said.
Ero, who is from Nigeria and has albinism, took the job as the U.N.'s first independent expert on the issue last August.
Albinism is a congenital disorder affecting about one in 20,000 people worldwide who lack pigment in their skin, hair and eyes. It is more common, however, in sub-Saharan Africa.
Attacks against people with albinism are particularly brutal, at times involving victims being dismembered alive by assailants wielding machetes, Ero said in her first report earlier this year.
She said was particularly troubled during her Malawi trip by an encounter with a teenage boy, Alfred.
The 17-year-old with albinism had been found in a pool of blood a year ago after being stabbed in his sleep by machete-wielding attackers.
He was silent while meeting her, she said. The boy hadn't recovered, and had stopped attending school since the attack.
"You wonder what will become of this person," Ero said.
Attacks against people with albinism this year have also been reported in Burundi, Mozambique and Zambia, according to Under the Same Sun, a Canadian advocacy charity.