Political and Social Movements

The Antislavery Movement

Is there slavery today?

Yes, slavery continues into the twenty-first century. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has stated: “Although slavery has been formally abolished from the world, the trade in human misery continues.” Today it is called “human trafficking.” Estimating the size of the problem is difficult, but the UNFPA estimates that about four million people are trafficked across international borders each year. The group also reports that the problem is widespread, but the greatest volume of human trafficking exists in Asia, with Africa and Latin America following close behind. The Asia Pacific region is seen as particularly vulnerable, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), because of “its huge population pyramid, growing urbanization, and extensive poverty.”

Some human rights groups estimate that the number of slaves in the world today is as high as 27 million people. And experts say that it is a growing problem, fueled by globalization. Men, women, and children, especially in developing countries, are forced into labor in sweatshops and fields, and into prostitution in brothels. In desperately poor regions of the world, families sell their children into slave labor and forced prostitution. Other victims are lured in; according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “From Himalayan villages to Eastern European cities, people—especially women and girls—are attracted by the prospect of a well-paid job as a domestic servant, waitress, or factory worker.” Traffickers recruit victims through fake advertisements, mail-order bride catalogs, and casual acquaintances. But the victims end up in situations controlled by their traffickers, and they are exploited against their wills to earn illicit revenues.

By the early 2000s, human rights groups and governments were organizing to combat the increase in human trafficking. Several agencies of the United Nations worked to address the roots of the problem and to aid victims. Nongovernment agencies were playing a role as well. One such group is Shared Hope International, founded in 1998 by U.S. Congresswoman Linda Smith (Washington) to “rescue and restore women and children in crisis by providing comprehensive services to meet their needs.” Italy’s government was at the forefront of the anti-trafficking movement, offering residency permits to victims and funding local shelters through legislation passed in 1999. In 2000 the U.S. Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA), declaring that sex trafficking is the “modern day slavery.” Government figures estimated that each year 45,000 to 50,000 women and children were trafficked into the United States, where they were trapped in modern-day slaverylike situations such as forced prostitution.

But the trafficking problem in the United States, and elsewhere, is not limited to importing women and children from other countries. According to a September 2001 Justice Department report, 400,000 children are lured or forced into prostitution each year in the United States. Many of the victims are from white, working-and middle-class families, often runaways from troubled homes who end up on the streets.

In September 2004 former representative John R. Miller (Washington) was sworn into the newly created position of ambassador-at-large for the U.S. State Department’s anti-trafficking office. In a speech, Miller said, “Today, the slavery is not on plantations and in homes; it is in factories and armies as well, and especially in brothels. But the slave masters use the same tools today as earlier slave masters: kidnapping, fraud, threats, and beatings, all aimed at forcing women, children, and men into labor and sex exploitation.”

Experts agreed that ending human trafficking in the twenty-first century would require a coalition of government, special interest groups, human rights organizations, and other nongovernment organizations. Determining the scope of the problem and raising public awareness were important first steps.


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