Slavery in the 21st Century

Slavery in the 21st Century
▪ 2001

by Charles A. Jacobs In the midst of the worldwide economic boom, reports documenting modern-day slavery come from every corner of the globe. From Bangladesh to Brazil, from India to The Sudan, and even in the U.S., there are more people enslaved today than ever before in human history. Slavery—defined strictly as forced labour for little or no pay under the threat of violence—engulfs, by conservative estimates, 27 million people.

      Hidden at the underbelly of thriving global markets and often contributing to the general wealth and comfort of people around the world, contemporary slavery takes myriad forms, though most are different from the classic pattern known to Americans. The more notable—though by no means the only—cases of modern-day slavery include chattel slavery in Mauritania and The Sudan, debt bondage in Asia, and human trafficking worldwide.

Chattel Slavery in Mauritania and The Sudan.
      In the northwestern African country of Mauritania, chattel slavery—the owning and trading of humans—never ended. The oldest and most traditional form of slavery, chattel slavery is a vestige of the trans-Saharan slave trade in black Africans. Beginning in the 13th century, Arab-Berber raiders descended upon Mauritania's indigenous African tribes, abducted women and children, and then bred a new caste of slaves.

      The raids had long ceased by 2000, but the bedein (white Arab masters), who disdained physical work, still hold haratine (black African slaves) as property. Haratine mothers do not own their own children; they are instead passed down through their master's estate. Slaves are bought and sold, given as wedding gifts, and traded for camels, trucks, or guns. The enslaved perform domestic work, haul water, and shepherd cattle.

      El Hor (literally, “the Free”), an underground antislavery group run by former slaves, estimates that there may be as many as one million haratine. Hundreds of thousands more are believed to be serving nomadic bedein masters in Mali and Senegal, two countries that border Mauritania, and there have been reports of haratine being sold to masters in several Gulf states.

      In The Sudan, Africa's largest country in area, the black slave trade was rekindled in a brutal civil-religious conflict between Arab Muslims in the north of the country and African peoples in the south, who were predominantly Christians and practitioners of traditional faiths. In 1989 the fundamentalist National Islamic Front overthrew the government in Khartoum and declared a jihad, or holy war, to impose Koranic law in the south. As part of its war effort, Arab militia stormed southern villages, killed the men, and abducted the women and children. The captives were transported north, kept by the militiamen, or traded, sometimes in what the UN Special Rapporteur described as “modern-day slave markets.”

      One of those children taken into bondage was Francis Bok. One day when he was seven years old, his mother sent him to the market to sell the family's rice and beans. Several hundred Arabs on horseback attacked and killed many in the market. Francis was put in a donkey basket along with two little girls and taken north. He was given to a family as their slave. He was beaten with sticks daily and cursed as abid—“black slave” in Arabic. He was forced to live with goats and cows because, he was told, “You are an animal, like them.” He was given putrid food and forced to eat it at gunpoint, to the laughter of his masters. Francis tried to escape three times. He was tortured after his first two attempts and tied with rope so that he could not move for a week. After 10 years in captivity, he finally escaped and made his way to Khartoum and then to Egypt, from which the UN sent him to the U.S. for resettlement. By 2000 he was working with the American Anti-Slavery Group in Boston to raise awareness about the plight of his people, and he testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the abuses.

Debt Bondage: Human Beings as Collateral.
      The most pervasive form of contemporary slavery is debt bondage, an age-old system that afflicts the poorest of the poor. In India, Pakistan, and Nepal, peasants have fallen into debt bondage from time immemorial. When a crop failed, the family breadwinner fell ill, or other circumstances arose such that people had no other choice but starvation, they borrowed money to stave off death. In return, as they had no assets, they pledged themselves.

      People became bonded labourers when they leased, pawned, or sold themselves or family members to landlords or masters in return for having taken on a debt. Ostensibly, the debt could be paid off over time, but the masters charged outrageous interest and added to the debt by charging for food, medicine, and shelter. People were also born into bondage, assuming a debt taken on generations before by an unknown family member who had fallen on hard times.

      Today an estimated 10 million to 15 million persons in India live in various forms of debt bondage. Millions of agricultural workers are bonded farm labourers. Much of what the bonded workers produce is exported overseas. For example, some of the tea Americans drink comes from slaves in India's Assam state. Jewelry, bricks, timber, stone, sugar, rugs, and cloth—all are produced by bonded labourers in South Asia.

Trafficking in Humans.
      In an illicit international trade that is beginning to rival drug trafficking, humans are being smuggled around the world to serve as slaves. New studies estimated that at least 700,000 people are trafficked each year, often by small crime syndicates. Victims are typically women, who are lured, abducted, or forced to work as prostitutes. Trafficking in humans illustrates the truly global nature of contemporary slavery. It is entirely possible for Thai women to find themselves enslaved in Paris and for Sri Lankan women to end up in bondage in New York City.

      According to a CIA report published in November 1999, as many as 50,000 women and children were trafficked into the U.S. over the previous 12-month span. The report estimated that approximately 30,000 people, most of whom were women and children, were trafficked annually into the U.S. from Southeast Asia; another 10,000 came from Latin America, 4,000 from Eastern Europe and newly independent states, and 1,000 from various other regions. In one notable case, more than 50 illegal Thai immigrants were forced to sew clothing (bound for top-name retailers) in a Los Angeles sweatshop surrounded by guards and barbed wire.

The Neo-Abolitionist Movement.
      Former slaves such as Francis Bok represent the face of the new antislavery movement. Abolitionist groups are increasingly giving survivors of slavery a platform to tell their stories and to demand action. These survivors offer compelling testimony that inspires people of all ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds. Though, unlike in the past, abolitionists do not need to win the moral argument against slavery, the task of mobilizing the international community to address contemporary slavery seriously remains a daunting task.

Charles A. Jacobs is president of the American Anti-Slavery Group, based in Boston.

* * *

Universalium. 2010.

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