Corruption and the failure to enforce the law are putting modern slaves at greater risk globally, from India and Bangladesh, to the UK and the US, according to human rights campaigners and survivors.
Activists from around the world have spoken out about the suffering they are witnessing in their countries and survivors have described their own harrowing stories, at the Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust Conference on modern slavery, in London.
“We’re not seeing [modern slavery] for what it is. Which is a violation of human beings being traded as a commodity,” said Kevin Bales, professor of contemporary slavery and research director of the rights lab, at the University of Nottingham.
Bales was joined onstage by campaigners and survivors including Ajeet Singh — the founder of the Indian non-profit Guria , which has already rescued more than 2,500 people from child prostitution and sex trafficking; Jessica Graham, from Survivor’s Ink in the US; and Asif Saleh, from Bangladeshi NGO BRAC .
But, regardless of the country, each agreed that corruption and impunity are the biggest barriers in the global fight against modern slavery and human trafficking.
“Talking about system failure, that seems to be a common theme regardless of what country you’re in,” said Saleh. “Admitting that there is a lack of enforcement is also about admitting corruption, state level corruption, that leads to this lack of individual security.”
Meanwhile, Singh pointed to low levels of prosecution and a failing in state support as being serious systemic problems in India — which is home to the greatest number of slaves in the world, with estimates varying from 14 million to 18 million.
While authorities want to crack down on slavery, according to Singh, their efforts are hampered by corruption and weak implementation of laws.
“The main problem in India is not about laws, it’s about implementation,” he said. “In spite of the government taking interest now, the problem is corruption and impunity. To point to an example, 42 survivors were being trafficked from a government protection home. And we told them, look your girls are gone. And then they filed a case. But none of the girls have been recovered, only one trafficker. No-one has gone to jail.”
“The acquittal rate is about 80%,” he continued. “Can you imagine? You do all the work for so many years and ultimately it’s zero.”
Singh is calling for a national action plan that doesn’t just address the law but also addresses how it is implemented.
He said that instead of tackling the issue in a far-sighted way, “I want to look at things in a short-sighted way. Here, to get justice in the long run, we are missing out on the individual survivors. No one should enjoy any impunity in sexual violence cases.”
But impunity is not just a problem in India, it’s a problem around the world.
American activist Jessica Graham, from Survivor’s Ink, also called for education and greater enforcement.
“You have to educate people to understand,” said Graham, who was introduced to the world of trafficking when she met Jennifer, the original founder of Survivor’s Ink and herself a victim of modern slavery at the hands of Graham’s estranged husband.
“Law enforcement needs to turn it around. Because right now they’re punishing the victims and they’re not going after the traffickers,” Graham continued. “They’re not putting in the investigative work to get to that point. Because it’s easier to do a round up every couple of months, and then punish the people they bring in. They’re punishing children, sometimes as young as 12 or 14, and they’re labelling them, they’re giving them these records, and they’re not helping them.”
She added: “The worst thing with our law enforcement is that when they do these round-ups, the minute these men and women are getting out of jail, the traffickers are right out there waiting for them. They’re picking them up.”
“It is not sufficient,” she said. “Honestly before Jennifer told me what had happened to her, I didn’t know. this existed. Nobody is educating people, nobody is talking about it. It’s this big secret, but it needs to be brought to attention.”
A British woman, identified only as Sarah for her own protection, also spoke out about her personal experience of being a victim of modern slavery on the streets of the UK.
Sarah was groomed by a gang in the UK between the ages of 10 and 12. She had been in foster care since the age of 3 and was moved around a lot so, she said, she was “vulnerable” to the gang, who “seemed to really care for me.”
“At a time where I had no love, support, or community, they provided it. That was something that I craved,” she said. “I started buying cheap alcohol and cigarettes from them. Sometimes I didn’t have to pay because I was a friend. That’s where my debt bondage with them began.
“When I was 12, I was called to the shop. But this time there were no smiles, only locked doors,” she continued. “They said I owed them £75,000… They showed me photos of my loved ones, oblivious that they were being watched, and said they would shoot them. They said I belonged to them and until my debt was cleared, I would have to work for them.”
For seven years, Sarah was forced to work as a prostitute, being sold to up to 16 customers a day. But, even though she had a foster carer and was known to the police, she said she was “completely overlooked.”
“Not one of them asked the questions,” she said. “Nobody wanted to find out why I was getting into trouble. Why a 15-year-old was going into hotel rooms with older men. Why a child was barely in school or why, when she was, she was exhausted.”
The traffickers had such control over Sarah’s life that, even when she was on a school trip to France in Year 8, they were able to find a way to make her work overnight with no-one noticing.
“Because of system failures, it took seven years [to be saved]. That should not have been the case,” she said. “If eyes were opened and questions were asked then I wouldn’t have had my childhood stolen by the most poisonous men.”
The Thomson Reuters Foundation Trust Conference 2017 launched on Wednesday in London, with 600 delegates from 300 international organisations united to take action together to help put an end to modern slavery.
“Slavery… flourishes where corruption operates with impunity,” said Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in her welcoming speech.
“[It operates] where those who are exploited don’t know their rights,” she continued. “The world is experiencing the biggest movement of people since World War II. More than 22 million people have been displaced from their countries.”
Villa highlighted the plight, particularly, of the Syrians forced to flee from their homes by conflict, and of the Rohingya Muslims who have run from violence — described as “ethnic cleansing” by British Prime Minister Theresa May this week — in Myanmar.
“You would do anything to put a roof over your child’s head,” she said. “It’s exactly what the traffickers prey on, and it’s silence that keeps them in that vicious cycle.”
The name of the conference has been changed this year from Trust Women to Trust Conference, in recognition of the fact that “slavery affects both men and women.” But, according to Villa, “it doesn’t mean that we have left the women behind. It simply means that we have expanded.”
“Slavery is horrific. You just turn a human being into an object that you can dispose of whenever you want. Not even animals are treated that way,” said Villa.
The term modern slavery encompasses human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, sex trafficking, and forced marriage.
And the two-day conference aims to acknowledge the “multifaceted” nature of modern slavery, hearing from survivors, from companies that are taking measures to eliminate forced labour, and from organisations working directly to rescue people from human trafficking.
Slavery “is a crime that people have difficulty to identify and understand… that is discussed among small groups, behind closed doors,” added Villa, and it “affects every country, even here in the UK.”
An estimated 40 million people were enslaved globally last year across the world, in both rich and poor countries, in an escalating crime that is worth an estimated $150 billion a year. More than 152 million children worldwide are subject to forced labour.
In the US, up to 60,000 people are believed to be living as slaves, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index. The British government believes there to be an estimated 13,000 victims of slavery in the country, but police believe the figure is much higher.
According to Villa, cooperation between the public and private spheres is the way to make real impact on the ground, to really make a difference to the lives of people caught up in modern slavery.
“It’s a drop in the ocean,” she said, “but it’s a start.”
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