The war on modern slavery is never far from the headlines, but is it actually being won?
The best way to benchmark the campaign is to read the US State Department’s Trafficking In Persons report, the latest edition of which has just been published.
Modern slavery comes in many guises but there are, as the 2018 report emphasises, certain common themes. Unskilled and low-skilled workers, women and children are especially vulnerable. In a disconcerting number of countries, orphanages are involved in trafficking or forced labour – the report singles out one where disabled children are forced to do “work therapy”. Certain industries – fishing, mining, agriculture and construction – are likelier to employ slaves than others.
In many parts of the world, the laws and organisations that are supposed to safeguard victims are ineffectual. The report identifies 25 countries – notably Brazil, Brunei, Turkey Ukraine and Vietnam – where lack of funds hampers governments’ good intentions. In Guinea-Bissau, for example, a 10-person unit to protect women and children from trafficking and other crimes is hamstrung by the fact that it can only afford to run one vehicle.
The 22 countries named and shamed by the US State Department as not meeting the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act – and making no significant efforts to do so – are Belarus, Belize, Bolivia, Burma, Burundi, China, Comoros, Congo (both the Democratic Republic of and the Republic of), Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Iran, North Korea, Laos, Mauritania, Papua New Guinea, Russia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Venezuela.
Mauritania’s inclusion is no shock. The former French colony is one of the few nations where hereditary slavery remains widespread – especially, as the State Department reports, among the Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian communities where, either because of poverty, cultural tradition, or to retain access to their land, many farmers still work for their former masters. Local rights groups estimate that 18% of the population – more than 500,000 people – work as slaves.
Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery – in 1981 – and only passed a law allowing slaveholders to be prosecuted 11 years ago. Hereditary slavery was criminalised in 2015 but the scourge persists, partly because the authorities seem reluctant to prosecute offenders.
Children are in particular danger. As the State Department report notes, “Approximately 41% of Mauritanian children don’t have birth certificates and are thus generally not permitted to enrol at school, which increases their risk for trafficking.” Many are forced to work on fishing boats or smuggle drugs. Even those Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian children who go to school are not entirely safe. In one case, a group of teachers who forced their pupils to beg on the streets escaped prosecution after promising not to do it again.
Campaigners hope that a recent case – in which two slaveholders were sentenced to 10 and 20 years in prison respectively – marks a shift in the government’s attitude. It is possible that the harsh sentences were passed to assuage the African Union which, in January, urged Mauritania to step up its fight against slavery.
The authorities have, however, taken a tough line with Moussa Biram and Abdallahi Matallah Saleck, two anti-slavery activists who were arrested in June 2016, tortured (according to Amnesty International) and sentenced to two years in prison. They are due for release in December.
The downgrading of the Republic of Ireland from tier 1 (compliant with the TVPA) to tier 2 (effectively “must try harder”) has caused some consternation in Dublin. There have been no successful anti-slavery prosecutions in Ireland for five years and a government scheme to give immigration permits to trawler crew from outside the European Economic Area has, according to one American diplomat, created a “grey zone” in which human trafficking can flourish. The Irish government says that its own report on modern slavery, to be published shortly, will give a more accurate picture.
That downgrading leaves Ireland only slightly above Uzbekistan, which is on the tier 2 watchlist (effectively the State Department’s way of saying “must try harder” and “don’t fall back into bad habits”). The central Asian country’s nationwide campaign against forcing children to harvest cotton is, after four years, finally bearing fruit. Although at least 336,000 people were forced to work the cotton fields – out of a total workforce of 2.6m – international observers say, “systemic child labour has been eradicated”. The authorities could still do much more – Uzbeks have been trafficked to Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Thailand and Ukraine.
Commenting on the report, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, said: “The world should know we will not rest until human trafficking is a thing of the past.” With an estimated 40.3m people still working in conditions of slavery around the world, this is no time to rest.
Progress is being made, as the upgrading of 14 African nations for their anti-slavery efforts clearly demonstrates. At the same time, to millions of people like Ashik – a Bangladeshi who borrowed $20,000 to come to the UK for a job, had his passport confiscated, was forced to work unpaid in a Scottish hotel, and is too afraid of his creditors to return home – such progress must seem agonisingly slow.
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