A portrait of modern bondage: New report estimates that there are nearly 30 million slaves around the globe

November 23, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 23, 2013

Last week, I visited DocuTicker.com and stumbled upon The Global Slavery Index 2013, a first-of-its-kind report published last month by Australia’s Walk Free Foundation.

Being aware of modern slavery, but knowing few if any specifics, I decided to delve into the 130-page report. Reading it left me with mixed emotions.

First, a few positives. In general, wealthy, highly developed nations — especially those in Europe — have relatively low prevalences of slavery. The Index profiles the nations with the 10 highest and the 10 lowest prevalences; of the latter group, all but New Zealand are in Western or Northern Europe. These nations tend to have specifically designated government units, education programs and plans for identifying and responding to human trafficking and forced labor. They have also evaluated the efficacy of their response mechanisms.

Unfortunately, the report is filled with dismaying information. The Index estimates that there are 29.8 million enslaved people in the world, with by far the largest number of those — perhaps 14 million — located in India. Another 2.9 million slaves are estimated to be in China, and at least 2 million more are thought to be in Pakistan.

The Index, building on earlier research, finds that high individual poverty, low human development (including access to education and banking), and low levels of a measure called GDPPPP, or gross domestic product per capita purchasing power parity, all correlate with high levels of enslavement. Thus it is, lamentably, no surprise that half of the nations with the highest prevalence of slavery are located in Africa: Mauritania, which is No. 1, and Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, the Gambia and Gabon, which occupy slots 7 through 10.

In a few nations, there are societal norms that allow slavery to flourish. Here’s what the Index says about Mauritania, a nation of 3.8 million people in which somewhere from 4 percent to 20 percent of the population is enslaved:

Haratins, whose name literally means “ones who have been freed”, are descendants of the Black Moors, the historical slave population (‘Haratin’ is not a term that is used by Haratin people use [sic] to identify themselves as it can be discriminatory). The Haratins are understood to be the ‘property’ of the White Moors, who are a minority in the country but wield disproportionate (majority) political and economic power.

Indoctrination to ensure people in slavery accept their situation of ownership is a key feature of slavery in Mauritania, with understandings of race and class, as well as some religious teachings being used to justify slavery. Without access to education or alternative means of subsistence, many believe that it is God’s wish for them to be slaves. As most people in slavery are kept illiterate and uneducated, they are unaware of the fact that according to Islamic law, a Muslim cannot enslave a fellow Muslim. Compounding this, the legal and policy framework to protect women’s rights in Mauritania is extremely deficient, with many discriminatory laws. Indeed, according to the 2001 Family Code (Code du Statut personnel), women remain perpetual minors. Harmful traditional practices, including early and forced marriages and female genital mutilation, are commonplace. There is no specific law against violence against women and marital rape is not a crime. Although Mauritania has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), it entered a reservation stating that only articles that comply with Sharia Law and the Mauritanian Constitution would be applied. The Sharia Law and the Criminal Code currently pose grave violations to women’s rights; for instance, women who are victims of rape can be prosecuted for the crime of Zina (adultery).

In Haiti, which is ranked No. 2 by the Index in terms of having the highest prevalence of slavery, children often wind up being enslaved, abused and neglected when their families send them to live in other households through the restavek exchange system. In other countries, cultural norms and social practices exacerbate the issue. These include bonded labor or debt-bondage (in which workers become virtual slaves in an effort to repay money owed) and forced marriage (in Pakistan, some clans settle disputes by having a young girl from one group marry a man in the other). Political turmoil also contributes to the problem.

One thing the report makes obvious is that slavery is a complex issue that demands a wide variety of responses — not just strengthening laws, developing, evaluating and adjusting plans, and allocating personnel and money, but also offering children additional years of compulsory education, cracking down on corrupt officials who ignore or aid trafficking, and improving the treatment of victims.

Even in highly developed nations where the population of enslaved people numbers in the hundreds, serious problems remain. For instance, the Index notes that few recent human trafficking prosecutions in Luxembourg have actually put anyone behind bars. In one case, involving 95 mostly Estonian women, three convicted offenders were issued suspended sentences, and a fourth convict was given no prison time. The report recommends that New Zealand “[a]ppoint front-line welfare officers who can bridge the cultural gap between fishing crews on foreign fishing vessels, and enforcement officials.” For Ireland, three recommendations (out of a total of 10) are that work visas not restrict laborers to a single employer, which leaves visa holders more vulnerable; that the nation “[c]oordinate with source countries to prevent human trafficking through awareness campaigns”; and that it provide counseling and repatriation services to victims in a fashion that will guarantee them safe passage home and also protect them from being exploited again.

Although the cause of the Walk Free Foundation seems virtuous and uncontroversial, I suspect that some religious groups will eschew the organization. That’s because The Global Slavery Index takes a rather permissive approach toward sex work; check, for instance, this passage from the country profile on India:

Any response should first and foremost respect the human rights of those affected, and ensure that they are not criminalised, detained or forced into ‘rehabilitation’ programmes. Responses to modern slavery should be careful to take into account that while victims of human trafficking need to be assisted to freedom, some adults work in the sex industry for survival.

The group behind the Index intends to publish annual updates. It will be interesting to see how different nations respond to these reports, and to the problems they outline.

But beyond impressing me with the scope of the issue of slavery, the first entry in the series served to do something else: It reminded me how fortunate I am not only to have been born an American, but to have been born into an intelligent, educated and relatively well-off family. I’m not a religious man, but reading about the miseries documented in the Index prompted me many, many times to think to myself, There but for the grace of God go I…

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