Slavery in the 21st Century

The end of the U.S. Civil War, now exactly 150 years ago, meant freedom for four million slaves in the American South. Remarkably, slavery in its modern form — human trafficking, forced labor and forced marriages — continues to exist throughout the world. We wonder: Which country today has the largest number of unfree people?

A. Nigeria
B. Mexico
C. India
D. Russia

A. Nigeria is not correct.

Nigeria is not just the most populous nation in Africa. According to the Walk Free Foundation’s 2014 Global Slavery Index, Nigeria also has the continent’s largest number of people trapped in modern slavery,

Modern slavery is defined as any condition in which a human being is held in compelled service. Examples include women who are tricked into migrating for non-existent jobs and then forced to work in brothels or enter into forced marriages, household workers who are promised paid work but are then forced to work without wages, and children who are forced into military service.

Nigeria’s 834,000 slaves account for about 13% of the 6.4 million people living in modern slavery in Africa. Among them are children who are forced to work as street vendors or beggars and boys who are forced to work in mines, stone quarries and domestic service.

Many girls are trafficked out of Nigeria. The European Union has estimated that 60% of all sex workers in Italy and Belgium come from Nigeria.

In April 2014, after abducting more than 200 girls in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatened to sell the girls into slavery. Nearly a year later, their fate remained uncertain.

B. Mexico is not correct.

In the Americas, Mexico has a larger population of victims of modern slavery than any other nation in the region. Mexico’s victims mostly come from other, poorer nations in Central and South America.

Most instances of modern slavery in Mexico are related to criminal cartels, which often operate with the complicity of local law enforcement. These groups frequently kidnap women and girls and force them to work as prostitutes or as domestic servants.

At 267,000, the number of unfree people in Mexico equals about 0.2% of the country’s 122 million population. Haiti — a nation of only 10 million and the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere — has a modern slave population that, at 238,000, is almost as large in number as Mexico’s.

In fact, the prevalence of modern slavery in Haiti — affecting 2.3% of the population — is about ten times higher than in Mexico. Haiti’s extreme poverty leads many families to send their children to work as domestic servants in other households, where they are vulnerable to physical abuse and sexual exploitation.

C. India is correct.

As many as 14.3 million Indians in 2014 were victims of modern slavery. In other words, a little over 1% of India’s 1.25 billion people are trapped in modern slavery. These 14.3 million people also account for 40% of the estimated 35.8 million people in modern slavery worldwide.

Much of the burden of modern slavery in India appears to fall on the lower caste (and hence poorer) members of Indian society, religious minorities and immigrants from India’s neighbors, Nepal and Bangladesh.

India’s modern slave population is almost five times larger than that of China (3.2 million), the country with the second-largest number, and seven times larger than Pakistan’s (2.1 million). Together, these three countries make up 55% of the people living in modern slavery worldwide.

D. Russia is not correct.

Russia has the largest incidence of modern slavery of any European or Eurasian nation. Estimated at just over a million, the number of modern slaves in Russia represent 0.7% of the country’s 143 million people.

Many of the victims of slavery in Russia come from former states of the Soviet Union, especially Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The U.S. State Department has reported that, in 2013, thousands of North Korean citizens were being forced to work in the timber industry in Russia’s Far East — apparently with the approval of both governments.

The Global Slavery Index’s estimate of 35.8 million modern slaves worldwide is about 70% higher than the 21 million people the International Labour Organization (ILO) identified in 2012 as victims of forced labor.

The higher number results from the Global Slavery Index’s inclusion of forced marriages as a form of modern slavery (as opposed to forced labor) and estimates of unreported cases of slavery.

Most nations have taken steps to ban human trafficking and forced labor. But the persistence of millions living in conditions in which they are forced to work or marry against their will means that enforcement of these laws continues to be extraordinarily weak.

Primary data source: Global Slavery Index 2014 (PDF)

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