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The traffic in human misery*

World Guide

Today's slavery is rooted in the absolute poverty of an ever-increasing portion of the world's population. It also emanates from the systematic exploitation of the weakest in society practiced by some individuals and companies with power. The causes of this misery are apparently not considered enemy enough to be fought by the powerful West

In almost total silence, their plight unknown, there are at least 27 million people around the world today living in slavery. Many believe this conservative figure falls far short of the reality. Until recently, the practice of slavery was thought to be largely exclusive to war-torn countries such as Angola, Sudan, Somalia and Chad. Today, even in relatively peaceful regions, slave trafficking is on the rise.

A joint report in 2001 by the Shengen Commissions (which study free travel between the countries of the European Union) and the Anti-Mafia Commission of the Italian parliament estimates that the number of people living in a situation of forced servitude is in the region of 200 million. But even the most cautious figures show that today there are more people living in slavery-like conditions today than at any other moment in history. There is no doubt that there are millions of men, women and children, from the Philippines to Bangladesh, from Brazil to Italy and the Dominican Republic, who live in conditions of direct physical or economic submission. In Mauritania and Sudan, entire peoples are someone's property. The contemporary forms of slavery include forced labor and prostitution, debt servitude and child labor. Slaves today may be concubines, camel jockeys or sugarcane cutters, road construction workers, rug weavers or loggers. Though we do not see many images of whips and chains, and people are not sold at public auction, the slaves of today in many cases are subjected to treatment even more brutal, and conditions even more horrifying than their predecessors.

Slave trade at work

In 1926, the Slavery Convention, held under the auspices of the League of Nations, defined slavery as 'the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised'. Slavery was thus recognized in the broad sense, paving the way for identifying it in its new variations. There are different mechanisms of subjugation, for the purposes of labor, for example: children forced to work in textile mills in India, in the mines in Congo or making cooking oil in the Philippines; women in the factories of Vietnam; Burmese emigrants in Thailand; and Haitians cutting sugarcane in the Dominican Republic. Or they could be slaves on the banana plantations of Honduras or the people subcontracted by shoe factories in Cambodia.

Sexual slavery is another major form of human subjugation. In addition to the prostitution networks and sexual exploitation involving women, children and immigrants over much of the world, a business with a turnover of $7-13 billion a year, there are also some forms of marriage in which women become slaves. In effect, while Article 1º of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery (1956) bans 'any practice or institution in which the woman, 'without the right to refuse, is promised or given in marriage on payment of a consideration in money or in kind to her parents, guardian, family or any other person or group', or in which 'the husband of a woman, his family, or his clan, has the right to transfer her to another person for value received or otherwise'.

The reality is that practices remain in place around the world allowing marriages in exchange for
money or some type of economic benefit. This practice often turns into the 'purchase' of the bride and her 'services'. In some places, it is the bride's family must pay a dowry to the groom or his family, and if that sum cannot be handed over in full before the marriage, the woman is 'retained' within the marriage and subjected to punishment, mistreatment and other forms of violence as long as the debt is not paid.
In many cases, modern slavery, particularly in rural areas, can be traced to the repayment of family
debts through the sale of family members, usually children, or through servitude to the creditor.

The widespread decline in the market for agricultural products and local natural disasters has forced small farmers to amass
debt in order to survive; many have inherited debt several generations old. Such is the case of the Adivasi indigenous peoples in India, the peasant farmers in some areas of Brazil and the people of Bolivia's jungle regions who are forced to sell their harvests and their lands at rock-bottom prices. Debt also imprisons immigrants who cross borders illegally in search of work, and once at their destination find that their income must go to the networks that brought them there, to cover supposed expenses such as transport, food and lodging.

Like the children who are forcibly recruited into Sudan's army or by Somali warlords or Liberian guerrilla forces, many adults are forced, kidnapped or coerced into enlisting, whether in the regular army or with guerrillas, paramilitaries or other armed
opposition groups.

Old-style slavery

There are an estimated 90,000 slaves in Sudan. The vast majority are black Christians captured by governmental militias and sold to Arabs in the country's north. According to some reports, there is not a village in the north where slaves bought from the military cannot be found. Although Islam bans the taking of Muslim slaves, the fact is that some of the black population of southern Mauritania for example, despite being Muslim are treated as slaves. There is no country nowadays in which slavery is legal, but in some places the ban has been merely a formal declaration without any effect in practice and no change in the economic, social, political or cultural conditions that force women, men and children into situations of slavery.

The industrialized world, which has carried high the banner of
human rights, does not generally call attention to the phenomenon of slavery. Championing the human rights cause has its origins in the Cold War, when it concerned denouncing abuses committed by states, preferably -though not exclusively- within the socialist camp. The West defended prisoners of conscience, dissidents, intellectuals and victims of torture in order to exert pressure over governments. In other words, efforts were inspired by political motives.

Today's slavery is rooted in the absolute
poverty of an ever-increasing portion of the world's population. It also emanates from the systematic exploitation of the weakest in society practiced by some individuals and companies with power. The causes of this misery are apparently not considered enemy enough to be fought by the powerful West. Denouncing slavery would be to denounce the hidden factors that foster it. For the slaves of the 21st century are children of wars, of the merciless competition of the markets, of the need to cut costs and of the desolation that corporate capital has created in all corners of the world.

*Published in The World Guide





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