Slavery in the World Today

An astonishing document, the Global Slavery Index 2013, has been published this month. It disposes of the generally accepted view that slavery was abolished throughout the world in the 19th century. The survey in the Index ranks 162 countries and holds that almost 30 million people are physically living as slaves. This is an even larger number than that stated by the International Labor Organization, which suggests there are 21 million people who are victims of forced labor, but it is probably more accurate.

The Index, compiled by Walk Free Foundation, an Australian organization, defines modern slavery in a broad fashion. The central feature of the definition is the control of one person by another, thus significantly depriving him or her of their individual liberty with the intent of exploiting those persons through that control. That exploitation can take the form of bonded labor, child slavery by sale or exploitation, early and forced marriage, forced labor, debt bondage, descent-based slavery, and human trafficking.

Similarly, there are a number of reasons to explain why people become and remain slaves: by fraud and deception, by abduction in conflict, by false recruitment practices, by traditional laws or practices that provide for forced marriages, and by criminal activity.

The survey in the Index provides the opportunity to evaluate the existence or the violation of human rights in the 162 countries. The United Nations organizations, especially the UN Human Rights Council, as well as the World Council of Churches and many in the media and non-governmental organizations, along with well-meaning academics, would do well to take heed of the actual existing facts in any further resolutions and declarations they issue about boycotts or sanctions.

The largest numbers of slaves are in India (14.7 million slaves), China (3 million), and Pakistan (2.1 million). The lowest prevalence of slavery exists in Britain, Ireland, and Iceland. In the Middle East the estimate is that about 2.5% of the total 30 million in the survey exist in some form of modern slavery. Trafficking of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is widespread. Not surprisingly in view of the influence of Islam, the Middle East countries have the highest level of discrimination against women. They have a high level of forced and child marriages, and also a considerable exploitation of trafficked women in forced prostitution and as domestic workers. Some of the countries, including Egypt, Syria, and Morocco have passed laws to limit slavery but they are not enforced.
A related issue is the large number of migrant workers in Middle East countries. Foreign workers constitute between 40-90% of the populations in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. While these workers may not be technically enslaved, they are often subject to controls of various kinds.

The worst ranked Middle East countries are Sudan, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. The best ranked are Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel. The Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip run by Hamas are not covered in the survey of slavery. Israel is comparatively well placed in this survey. It has an estimated 300,000 foreign workers, about 3.5% of total population. The survey suggests Israel has 7700-8500 slaves, almost all related to sex trafficking victims and the sex trade in which about 15,000 prostitutes are involved. Traffickers have been smuggling women every year into Israel. Sexual services were and still are legal in Israel.

The worst countries in the world for slavery are Mauritania and Haiti, where about 10% of children are in some form of child labor. It is Mauritania that has the highest proportion of slaves in its population in the world with what the survey estimates at 140,000-160,000 slaves, though estimates by other authorities are much higher, even suggesting 800,000 out of a total population of 3.7 million.

Slavery in Mauritania is mainly in the form of chattel slavery. Adults and children are the complete property of their masters who own them and their descendants. Thus slave status has gone through several generations from people originally captured in raids by slave owning groups. Slaves can be bought and sold or given away as gifts. Women are disproportionately affected by slavery, being subjected to forced marriages and sexual exploitation
On a number of occasions, in 1961, 1981, 2003, and 2007, laws have been passed in Mauritania to prohibit slavery. These laws make trafficking in persons and most forms of slavery a criminal offence. But up to this point they are not enforced, and discrimination and persecution of the slaves, kept illiterate and uneducated, continues. Women remain minors according to the Family Code. Early and forced marriages and female genital manipulation are common, as is violence against them.

In view of this sad state of affairs, the UN Human Rights Council has surpassed itself in its absurd behavior by the bizarre appointment in December 2012 of Mauritania as its Rapporteur and one of its vice-presidents, together with the Maldives and Ecuador, other countries deficient in exercise of human rights, as other vice-presidents for 2013. Perhaps it is wholly appropriate for the Council, which has spent so much of its time condemning Israel for violations of human rights, to make this appointment of Mauritania. The UNHRC's version of human rights can now be implemented by a country which, in addition to slavery, has a disregard for legal procedures and fair trial, that employs torture, that engages in arbitrary arrest, that imposes limits on free speech and assembly, and has capital punishment for homosexuality.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.