Modern slavery is a reality also in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Even rich Western countries like Iceland, Ireland and the United Kingdom cannot be considered to be free of modern slavery. It is estimated, for example, that there are as many as four thousand modern slaves in the UK – and more could be done to help them, writes Nick Grono.

Nick Grono is chief executive officer of the Walk Free Foundation, an global organisation campaigning against slavery.

Modern slavery may not be as visible as in the past, but it’s found in the richest and poorest countries, in our major cities and in the countryside. As our societies have developed, slavery has evolved as well. Victims are transported on 747s as well as ox-carts. It’s used to produce everything from electronics, steel, food, and the cotton in our clothes. It turns its victims into pliable servants to be used and discarded. 

Violence is at the heart of all slavery. Whether the victims are coerced to work in quarries and factories, forced into marriage, or tricked into working in brothels – the common thread is that they are not free to walk away. But while we know enough to recognise that slavery, in its modern forms, is all around us, it remains poorly understood. This helps slavery remain hidden and hampers the fight to end it. 

Without accurate information, we don’t know where to focus our efforts or what works best in tackling it. This lack of information also makes it easier, sadly, for governments, business and communities to ignore it.

It is why it is important to shine a light on modern slavery by gathering as much authoritative information as possible. This is what has been drawn together in the first Global Slavery Index published by the Walk Free Foundation which is dedicated to ending modern slavery in this generation.

By collating information, the report enables the most accurate estimate yet of the numbers caught in slavery globally, regionally and nationally. It goes further by ranking 162 countries based on a weighted measure of the prevalence of modern slavery by population, the extent of child marriage and the scale of trafficking in and out the country.

The findings make bleak reading. The report estimates that there are at least 29.8 million people living in modern slavery. Most of those denied their freedom live in Asia with India, China and Pakistan having the greatest absolute numbers of people enslaved. India alone accounts for almost half the total with millions trapped in debt bondage and bonded labour.

But when looked at as a proportion of the population, it is Mauritania which has the worst record.  The West African country has a deeply entrenched system of hereditary slavery with 140,000 to 160,000 slaves out of a population of only 3.8 million. Haiti, a Caribbean nation where child slavery is also widespread, is in second place with Pakistan again one place below.

So what does this first Index say about the extent of modern slavery in Europe? Unsurprisingly, the picture is very mixed. The wealthy nations of Western Europe perform well with the lowest overall risk of enslavement of any region in the world, reflecting low levels of corruption, limited discrimination against women, a strong respect for human rights, and effective and comprehensive anti-slavery laws in most countries.

But even the countries that perform best in the index – Iceland, Ireland and the United Kingdom – cannot be considered to be free of modern slavery. It is estimated, for example, that there are as many as four thousand modern slaves in the UK – and more could be done to help them and prevent others suffering their fate. For the Index also examines for each country the priority given to rooting out modern slavery, the methods used and how they could be improved. 

The risk of enslavement in Europe increases further to the East. Research conducted in Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine suggests tens of thousands of victims exist in this region – far more than the low number of cases reported by governments. However, in contrast to other countries in the area, Moldova is making a concerted effort track and tackle the problem. But a significant challenge remains – Moldova ranks 6th in the world in terms of prevalence of modern slavery, and Moldovan nationals continue to be found living in slavery in many Western European countries.

This is the first year of the Index. As each year passes, we will work to refine and improve it. But it can already shape national and global efforts to root out modern slavery in Europe and across the world. We now know, for example, that just ten countries are home to 76% of those trapped in modern slavery. These nations must be the focus of global efforts. For Western Europe, the Index highlights that slavery still exists, despite all of our governments’ efforts to halt it. Countries are failing to bring sufficient resources to bear on human trafficking and slavery. Many of these nations could, with sufficient political will, be slavery-free.

This is the aim of the Index. We intend it to be a powerful weapon for all in the fight against modern slavery. Governments must be at the heart of this effort, putting in place effective measures and providing the resources to support and enforce them.   But it is all of us as citizens, as consumers and as individuals who can use the information to take part in this battle and press our leaders for action here in Europe and across the world.  

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