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What is modern slavery?

Despite being illegal in each and every nation, slavery persists in 167 countries around the world
Despite being illegal in each and every nation, slavery persists in 167 countries around the world

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms,” reads the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Yet slavery persists on a global scale, with 36 million people living in bondage. In this week's guest blog, Isabelle examines why slavery has continued long after its abolition.

The 2nd December marks the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. It comes at a critical time, as the recent 2014 Global Slavery Index (GSI) report estimates that nearly 36 million people are condemned to some form of modern slavery, in at least 167 countries. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” According to international regulations, slavery is a crime against humanity and punishable by law. So why does it still exist on an international scale?

There are a few of reasons why modern slavery cannot be solved overnight. First, it is embedded in a complicated history of social and political issues; so many of its roots, such as poverty and corruption, are difficult to overcome. Second, it is a clandestine, highly-organised crime. Exploiting other people is a lucrative business; this is the main motivation for modern slave traders. Third, the legality of certain practices is unclear; many acts of servitude are not viewed as unethical or unlawful. Modern slavery is an elusive, multi-billion dollar industry that shows no signs of weakening.

Defining slavery

There is a difference between traditional and present-day slavery. In the former (which is supposed to have been abolished throughout the whole world), humans were considered legal property – objects or things that people owned. A person was captured, detained, or simply born into slavery, and could be bought and sold at any time. Some countries did not make this illegal until the early 2000s.

Modern slavery, however, is defined by the GSI report as people controlling or possessing another person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of their individual liberty, with the intention of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer, or disposal. Modern slavery manifests in several forms: child soldiers, forced marriages, sex workers, exploited domestic workers, and bonded labour (debt slavery); as well as dangerous and low-paying work in factories, street shops, and even offices. It affects the poorest and most socially excluded groups: migrants and certain ethnicities and minorities. UNESCO notes that women and children are primarily subjected to this misfortune.

A group of Syrian refugees
Trafficking often takes people across borders; leaving victims of slavery in unfamiliar
environments, often with no ID and little chance of receiving help from the authorities

Human trafficking is a primary method of acquiring slaves. People are coerced or deceived through false promises of jobs or migration; others are sold by family members; or many are simply kidnapped. One example is the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, which has been continually abducting young women in Nigeria. The leader of the group has claimed them as slaves and many victims have been sold or forced into marriage.

A global problem

The GSI declares that India, China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia have the highest number of slaves. However, Mauritania has the highest percentage of slaves. It was also the last nation to officially recognise slavery as crime – in 2007. The Economist reported that a week before the GSI was published, the Mauritanian authorities arrested the country’s most prominent slavery abolitionist, as well as fellow members of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement.

Although Asia and Africa face the biggest challenges, modern slavery is by no means restricted to developing nations. Police are investigating allegations concerning Britain’s fishing fleet; foreign fishermen were reported to have been suffering from exhaustion, malnutrition, and abuse onboard UK trawlers. Many were forced to continue working for zero wages, despite significant injuries sustained during dreadful conditions at sea. Across continents, hundreds of thousands of women in the US are sold into prostitution annually, forced into drug addictions, and are branded with tattoos by their traffickers.

The trafficking process often involves operations across national and international borders.Workers cannot escape in an unfamiliar place; their identity documents are usually confiscated, and they’re not in a position to receive help from local officials. For example, a New York Times article describes how human traffickers lured over 170 Bangladeshi men with the promise of work. Instead of jobs, they were drugged, tied up, beaten, starved, and shipped to Thailand.

Who is to blame?

Slavery causes life-long trauma and has repercussions not only for victims, but also for their descendants. People who take advantage of others’ fear, desperation, or ignorance should be punished appropriately. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime published a 2014 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, which stated: “Governments need to send a clear signal that human trafficking will not be tolerated, through Protocol-compliant legislation, proper enforcement, suitable sanctions for convicted traffickers and protection of victims.” This is essential; I was shocked to read case studies in which apprehended traffickers are sentenced to only 1-3 years in prison.

The Walk Free Foundation says that slavery usually occurs in regions where the government is unstable or where there is discrimination or segregation. Protective services, such as the police force, are either corrupt, unreliable, or unavailable to certain groups. Large populations, low GDPs, and loopholes in the law are also causes. As said before, there is no quick fix for this. We can take general measures such as fighting trafficking at its roots, managing associated problems like poverty and drug abuse, coordinating law enforcement between countries, and identifying and banning goods and services that are sourced through modern slavery.

I think, first and foremost, we should take serious notice of reports like the GSI findings. I’m living in a place that ranks 22nd in the list of countries most severely affected by modern slavery. I recall, during my travels, encountering various domestic workers under the age of 15, some verbally abused by their employers (and likely physically mistreated behind closed doors). They seemed resigned to their fate, and though troubled, I soon forgot about them. I never really considered them as slaves – but that is what they were. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to cases like these, or accept them as a norm. A leading abolitionist once said: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” His name was William Wilberforce.

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