May 25, 2023 - World

Compounding crises push more people into modern slavery, report warns

Estimated prevalence of modern slavery in 2021
Data: Walk Free Global Slavery Index; Map: Alice Feng/Axios

The number of people living in modern slavery is growing, reaching 50 million in 2021 — an increase of 10 million in less than six years.

Driving the news: Longstanding factors like conflict, repressive governments and supply chains are, in part, driving the worsening situation. But additional conditions — including the pandemic, climate-induced migration and rollbacks of women's rights — have also become major drivers as well, according to a new report from the human rights group Walk Free.

The big picture: Of those trapped in modern slavery, at least 27.6 million were in forced labor and 22 million were in forced marriages, with women, children, and migrants disproportionally affected, the Australia-based Walk Free said in its Global Slavery Index report, released this week.

  • Women and children accounted for more than half of all those who were living in modern slavery in 2021, the report adds, noting that these are conservative estimates.
  • Migrant workers are more than three times more likely to be in forced labor than non-migrant workers, according to the report. That finding is especially worrisome when looking at the compounding crises worldwide that are forcing more people to flee unexpectedly, says Jacqueline Joudo Larsen, head of global research for Walk Free.
  • "There's not just one crisis ... there's conflict, climate change, COVID-19. They've all caused a significant disruption to employment and education and have led to increases in extreme poverty and forced an unsafe migration," Joudo Larsen tells Axios.
  • "And we know when people don't have time to plan a move like that, that they're more exposed to exploitation, both en route and at the destination."

Where it stands: Countries with the highest prevalence of modern slavery — North Korea, Eritrea, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tajikistan, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Afghanistan and Kuwait — share "some political, social, and economic characteristics, including limited protections for civil liberties and human rights," the report notes.

  • The countries with the lowest prevalence were Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.
  • Nations with the highest number of people living in modern slavery included India, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey, Bangladesh, and the United States. Six of those countries are in the G20.

Between the lines: The majority of modern slavery occurs in lower-middle and upper-middle-income nations, but it's "deeply connected to demand from higher-income countries," the report says.

  • G20 countries import $468 billion of at-risk products annually, according to Walk Free.
  • "The purchasing practices that happen within [wealthier] countries are actually increasing the demand for goods that is fueling exploitation in countries that are sitting at the frontline of global supply chains," says Joudo Larsen.
  • The highest-value at-risk products imported by G20 nations included electronics ($243.6 billion), garments ($147.9 billion), palm oil ($19.7 billion), solar panels ($ 14.8 billion), and textiles ($12.7 billion).

State of play: The number of people living in modern slavery has gone up, but government action has stagnated, Walk Free says.

  • The organization recommends governments and the international community approach modern slavery as an intersectional issue. That includes building modern slavery responses into humanitarian and crisis response plans.
  • It also calls on governments to focus on protections for those who are already vulnerable, implement stronger measures to combat forced labor supply chains, prioritize human rights when dealing with repressive regimes, and raise the legal age of marriage to 18 with no exceptions.

The bottom line: The world must remember that "these are people that we're talking about," not just numbers, Joudo Larsen says.

  • She adds that we also "can't lose sight of the fact ... this is an entirely man-made problem. So it's completely within our power to fix it."
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