Modern slavery: Silent scourge that reduces humans to commodities is a $150 billion business

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Calling for an end to “human trafficking and other forms of human slavery,” British Cardinal Vincent Nichols presented a stunning testimony against the “resurgence of slavery” where up to 21 million people are affected by the scourge.

As Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Nichols has led the fight against global human trafficking which, given the chaotic world situation, and especially displaced migrant flows, is actually now on the rise.

While there’s no precise legal definition of the contemporary crime, modern slavery and trafficking generally refer to people who are held against their will, isolated, and regularly exploited with negligible compensation. While concerning people forced into sexual slavery, the definition also extends to some unpaid and exploited farm labor and some fishing fleet crews. Organized crime plays a strong but not exclusive role in the exploitation; there is equally a nexus with international terrorist groups, according to officials.

Boko Haram and ISIL are two symbols of the modern face of slavery.
Boko Haram and ISIL are two symbols of the modern face of slavery.

Sponsored by the Holy See Mission to the UN as well as the Santa Marta Group which is an alliance of international police chiefs and bishops from around the world, the conference focused on battling human trafficking and modern day slavery. The Santa Marta group grew from a partnership between the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales and the London Metropolitan police.

The group has the strong endorsement and commitment from Pope Francis who in a message to the conference, described human trafficking as “a scourge throughout the world today.”

Significantly many of the victims will fear going directly to the police, but will nonetheless go to church parishes to seek help. According to Cardinal Nichols, many are “locked away” and are utterly isolated and cut off. He stated that a key element became pastoral care and building trust using the resources of the church as well as close coordination with law enforcement.

Cardinal Nichols stressed that human trafficking reduces victims to “the status of a commodity” and its victims pose a “deep shame to the human family.” He called for “effective international cooperation” to fight the growing threat.

Kevin Hyland, Britain’s Anti-Slavery Commissioner, advised that “the anti-slavery movement has so far failed,” with illegal profits now reaching $150 billion which come on the back of “the untold suffering of millions globally.” Commissioner Hyland focused on how terrorist groups such as Islamic State (ISIL) and Nigeria’s Boko Haram have profited from human slavery as both a tool of intimidation as well a profit maker.

Boko Haram Islamic militants regularly kidnaps girls and gives them the grim choice of either enforced marriages or being sold into slavery. The Boko Haram method is equally used by ISIL terrorists who capture Yazadi girls and sell them into slavery.

Boko Haram is a Sunni Muslim group active in Nigeria who is most notorious for the mass kidnap of 276 girls from Chibok in 2014. The abducted children, 219 who are still in captivity, are yet to be found. Recently Islamic militants released a video showing some of the kidnapped girls.

Besides Boko Haram terrorists, other criminal gangs in Nigeria abduct girls primarily from the south and send them on to Europe often for prostitution.

According to Hyland, the issue goes beyond sexual slavery to also sometimes include farm labor which is used and abused against the will of the workers. Dealing with cases of forced labor, and human trafficking, he stressed, “there’s no town in the United Kingdom where slave labor is not used.”

Actress Mira Sorvino, a UN Goodwill Ambassador, made a passionate appeal for combating human trafficking. Nonetheless the real issue remains that modern slavery has a very wide, elastic, and broad brush definition. While Sorvino concedes, ”there is no legal definition of human trafficking,” she points to the need for an inclusive definition. This may make sense morally and politically, but failing a precise legal definition, can then fall short on the prosecution side.

Given the chaotic global situation and refugee flows, the conditions favoring abductions and oppression are on the rise. Without question the 21 million people enduring modern slavery is all the more stunning, given we live in 2016.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]