Report: Slavery traps nearly 30 million people worldwide

Every country in the world has a slave population, according to a study by the Walk Free Foundation

Mauritania and Haiti have the highest proportions of slaves in the world.
Bruno Vincent/Getty

Slavery remains a serious global problem, with 29.6 million people in various states of forced servitude, including sexual exploitation, debt bondage and forced marriage, according to a new report.

Mauritania and Haiti have the highest proportions of slaves, while India, Pakistan and China have some of the highest absolute numbers, the Walk Free Foundation said in its first Global Slavery Index report, published Wednesday. The forms of bondage violate international decrees, including the 1926 Slavery Convention, an international treaty, and the UN Trafficking Protocol.

Native-born slaves are often found in poorer countries, while exploited workers from poorer parts of the world regularly end up in rich countries where they are often trafficked. In India, some native-born slaves never leave their own villages, Walk Free found.

"Today some people are still being born into hereditary slavery, a staggering but harsh reality, particularly in parts of West Africa and South Asia," the report states.  

"Other victims are captured or kidnapped before being sold or kept for exploitation, whether through 'marriage,' unpaid labor on fishing boats, or as domestic workers," the report continues. "Others are tricked and lured into situations they cannot escape, with false promises of a good job or an education."

The 10 countries with the highest number of enslaved or exploited workers, according to Walk Free, are: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russian Federation, Thailand, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

But Mauritania, with about 150,000 slaves, retains the highest proportion of enslaved people in the world, with aspects of "chattel slavery" that harken back to the American experience of the institution, where human beings are considered "full property of their masters who exercise total ownership over them and their descendants."

Many slaves in the West African nation were born into classes that have toiled as slaves for generations.

In August, Spain and China arrested 75 people for running an alleged human-trafficking ring.

Haiti, with 200,000 slaves, has the second-highest proportion of slavery in the world. Many of its slaves are children.

Child slavery in Haiti stems from the cultural practice called "restavek," where poor families send children to work in return for room and board in the homes of richer families, arrangements that often lead to abuse.

"Street children, many of whom are runaway restaveks, can end up being trafficked into forced begging and commercial sexual exploitation," the report says. Some of those Haitian children end up in the U.S. or other parts of the Caribbean.

Of the countries with the highest absolute number of slaves, India has 14 million and Pakistan has 3 million. China has 2 million, but the risk of becoming a slave is ranked relatively low, at 84 out of 162 countries studied.

The report slams Pakistan for its lack of organization tackling the problem.

"Government efforts to address modern slavery in Pakistan are poorly coordinated and executed. There are still large gaps in rules and regulations and no rehabilitation programs for people affected by modern slavery seem to be in place."

India's experience with slavery is particularly harsh.

"India's challenges are immense," reads the report. "India exhibits the full spectrum of different forms of modern slavery, from severe forms of inter-generational bonded labor across various industries to the worst forms of child labor, commercial sexual exploitation, and forced and servile marriage."

An inefficient legal system in India, a country of 1.2 billion people, discourages victims from seeking help from law enforcement. Those who lack identification papers are even more vulnerable, because they cannot prove their identity.

People are still being born into hereditary slavery, a staggering but harsh reality.

Walk Free also identified "servile marriage" as being a part of India's slavery problem.

A 2012 United Nations report (PDF) on the issue of such marriages blamed gender inequality for the prevalence.

"The leading cause of servile marriage is gender inequality, where girls and women are perceived, because of cultural or religious beliefs, to be commodities unable to make proper decisions about who and when to marry," states the U.N. report.

"Girls and women are forced to become brides because it is easier to control them and, in the case of girls, their virginity can be guaranteed and they have longer reproductive periods in which to produce more children."

The United States isn't immune to slavery's scourge.

"The relative wealth of Canada and the United States, their demand for cheap labor and relatively porous land borders, makes them prime destinations for human trafficking," the report states.

Walk Free estimates there are 59,000 people enduring exploitation in the United States, but because of strong legal prohibitions against slavery, the risk of becoming enslaved is relatively low.

At the bottom of the list, the countries with the least number, and proportion of slaves and slavery, are Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Ireland and and Iceland.

There are fewer than 100 slaves in Iceland, a country of 320,000 people, making it the country with the lowest absolute and per capita number of slaves.

The report finds that vigorous enforcement and prosecution of labor and human trafficking laws helps combat the problem, as well as care taken for the victims of trafficking.

In Ireland, which has one of the lowest rates of slavery but still acts as a transfer point for trafficked people, "identified victims of modern slavery are provided with state-funded support through the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), under the same programmes run for asylum-seekers."

The report notes that the U.K., which has 4,600 slaves, has far to go to eliminate the problem entirely.

"An analysis of the UK response on this issue confirms much more can be done, as the government response is fragmented and disjointed, and that there have been alarming systemic failures, including the loss of trafficked children from care."

Al Jazeera

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