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Slavery Survives into 21st Century

By Joan Delaney 2007 03 23

Two hundred years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, millions continue to live a life of servitude worldwide. This week, two hundred years after slavery was abolished in the British Empire, more people are enslaved around the world than at any other time in history.

Modern slaves don't wear chains and shackles, nor are they sold at open auction. The practice of enslavement has long since become illegal under international law, after all. Yet all over the world, from Sudan to China, from Mauritania to India, millions of individuals live in servitude. That makes slavery the third most profitable illicit trade in the world after drugs and arms.

Closer to home, human trafficking for purposes of forced labour and sex accounts for the fastest-growing form of slavery today. It knows no borders and affects about 2.4 million women, children and men. In North America, thousands women trafficked from around the globe are forced into a life of sex slavery and prostitution.

Even in Britain, which abolished slavery two hundred years ago this week, the government estimates that upwards of 4,000 women and children live as sex slaves. Most of them were trafficked into the country from Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Nigeria.

Whether it be children forced to work as camel jockeys in the Gulf states, North Korean women lured to China where they are coerced into marriage and prostitution, Ugandan children forced to become soldiers or sex slaves, or human trafficking for sex and labour in North America, slavery is alive and thriving in the 21st century.

Nowhere is slavery more blatant than in parts of Africa, where the children as young as five are kidnapped to become labourers, sex slaves, or child soldiers.

A form of slavery that has been ongoing for centuries in Mauritania and Niger is slavery by descent, in which generation after generation works for the same slave master. They are born into slavery and inherited as property. They can never know freedom.

Mauritania, located in northwest African, last attempted to outlaw slavery in 1981, but extensive anecdotal evidence suggests that thousands continue to be held captive.

"When we talk about the issue of slavery worldwide, we all know now that the policy of enslaving a human being or owning a human being as a piece of property is evil," says Simon Deng, who was himself enslaved in Sudan for three and a half years.

Deng was abducted by an Arab man from his village in southern Sudan when he was nine. Along with three other kidnapped boys, he was taken to a village in the north, where the man presented him as a gift to his relatives who, Deng says, were delighted.

Deng was made to do a job that the family donkey had been doing until his arrival—draw water from the River Nile. He worked long hours, slept with the animals, ate scarce leftovers, and was regularly beaten. His captors showed him a picture of a legless man, and told him that if he tried to run away they would cut off his legs.

Deng explains that much of the Arab population in Sudan doesn't see enslaving a black child as a crime, noting that many black girls are kidnapped to become sex slaves. He recalls how his captors told him that if he converted to Islam he could go to school and have a better life, but he refused.

Deng escaped by a fluke, later fleeing to the United States where he co-founded the American Anti-slavery Group. Now he rescues from slavery Sudanese children who often "don't know where they came from or where their home is."

"I believe very strongly that as a victim, I have to be the voice of those who have no voice," says Deng. "I have to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves."

The U.K.-based Anti-Slavery International (ASI) says a practice similar to the slave raids that plagued southern Sudan for decades continues today, with thousands of people held in bondage mainly as domestics and herders.

In West and Central Africa, tens of thousands of children as young as five are trafficked each year and forced into a range of exploitative work, including prostitution and in some cases, military service for rebel armies.

Bonded Labour
Bonded labour constitutes the most common form of slavery today, whereby millions of people are forced by poverty to accept a loan, often just a small one. To repay the debt, they're made to work every day for long hours, and given food and shelter as 'payment.' Interest accrues, and the debts become impossible to pay off, in which case it is passed on to future generations who in turn become enslaved.

In India, Nepal and Pakistan, bonded labour is common in agriculture, brick-making, domestic work, stone quarries, and silk manufacture. In carpet manufacturing in India, young children are preferred because their small nimble fingers can do a better job of weaving. When they grow too big, they're abandoned and replaced.

A 2004 UN survey found that 10 million children are exploited for domestic labour worldwide—700,000 of them in Indonesia alone, followed by Brazil, Pakistan, Haiti and Kenya. The report said the children can remain in bondage for long periods because their enslavement is "invisible" to their communities.

"Literally millions of people are in bonded labour in India," says ASI's Beth Herzfeld. Although this form of slavery has been illegal in India since 1976, there have not been any convictions for some 31 ones for those who break the laws.

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to eradicating slavery is that many have existed in servitude for so long that they've given up hope of liberation.

"In some instances we're talking about people who have never been free or who've been in slavery for such a long time they have to be taught or given help to live freely—not just the tools but the psychological means," says Herzfeld.

In China's "reeducation through labour" system, people can receive three-year forced labour sentences, meted out in many cases by the police alone, with no judicial process or access to a lawyer. An arbitrary system, RTL affects about 230,000 people in 280 camps, according to Human Rights Watch.

The idea is to get people who are deemed to have committed minor offences to recant their "crimes" and become good citizens; at the same time, they are forced to do backbreaking work with little-to-no pay in mines, factories and farms. Those serving reeducation through labour terms are at risk of being beaten and tortured, especially if they refuse to recant their alleged wrongdoings.

Among those imprisoned in China's forced labour camps, some estimates suggest that half are practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual discipline. Imprisoned without trial or conviction, hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong adherents have been sent to labour camps and prisons since 1999 for refusing to recant their belief in the Buddhist mediation practice.

Canadian Shenli Lin was among them. Just before immigrating to Canada in 1999, Lin was taken into custody for his affiliation with the recently-banned Falun Gong. He described his sentence as two years of brainwashing, torture, and long hours of forced labour making products for export. Roger Plant, head of the special action program to combat forced labour with the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, says the ILO "has had several discussions with the Chinese government on forced labour."

Human Trafficking

Yet forced labour is not the only problem in China. Plant says Beijing also acknowledges that the country has a problem with trafficking of women for sexual exploitation and forced brides. Many young women in southern China are trafficked into Southeast Asian nations, often being lured with promises of good jobs.

Human trafficking in Europe continues to grow, Plant says, with migrant workers from Eastern European countries and the Central Asian Republics being exploited, as well as "terrible problems" with the Albanian mafia, which is becoming increasingly powerful. The ILO says globalization contributes to people trafficking, which has now grown into a $30 billion industry. Plant believes slavery can be eradicated, and to that end the ILO has launched a global alliance which calls on "all kinds of partners" to come together to end forced labour. This is the ILO's contribution to the Millennium Development Goal of halving the world's poverty, says Plant.

"We believe that even though the problems are global and serious, with political will it is possible to eradicate forced labour over the next decade. We don't think it's a hopeless cause; we think that slavery and forced labour can be wiped out."

See also

New UK slave trade is rife
William Wilberforce
Bonded labourers and private prisoners
Used and abused