Inside the Arab slave trade: Human trafficking is still a problem in the Middle East

Published May 15th, 2014 - 08:25 GMT

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Boko Haram
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Image 1 of 12: Boko Haram’s leader claimed responsibility for kidnapping over 270 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria last month, saying the girls should marry and not attend school. "Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women," he said. Some girls have been forced to marry their abductors who paid a nominal bride price of $12.

Slavery is thriving
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Image 1 of 12: Slavery is thriving. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 21 million people are trapped in forced labor and other types of modern bondage, including 600,000 migrant workers in MENA alone (both men and women!) compelled to work against their will. Walk Free Foundation estimates it to be 29.8 million people worldwide.

labor exploitation
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Image 1 of 12: Labor exploitation lurks in the murky depths of global supply chains, but no business wants to cozy up with charges of unfair employment. The BDS movement in Palestine caused headaches for major fashion companies linked with Delta Gail Industries, a fabric biz in the West Bank’s Barkan Industrial Zone notorious for poor working conditions.

human exploitation
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Image 1 of 12: The booming industry of human exploitation generates profits in excess of $32 billion USD each year. Astoundingly, the United Nations estimates that people-trafficking is the third biggest criminal industry behind guns and drugs, and the MENA region often serves as a pathway for the exchange and transport of all three.

Human trafficking
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Image 1 of 12: Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing transnational organized crimes, often targeting countries in crisis where government institutions are weak, like Egypt and Syria. It seeks out those who are vulnerable, such as migrants, internally displaced persons, ethnic minorities and refugees. Women and children are most vulnerable.

slave states
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Image 1 of 12: Mauritania ranks 1st on the Index, with the highest estimated proportion of its population enslaved of any country in the world. Hereditary slavery is deeply entrenched in the nation, which has an estimated 150,000 slaves in a population of only 3.8 million. Haiti is in 2nd place due to rampant child slavery, with Pakistan one place below.

India slaves
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Image 1 of 12: India has the highest number of people enslaved in absolute terms, with approximately 14 million people in modern slavery – almost half of the total number worldwide! China follows, with an estimated 2,900,000 in forced labor.

human trafficking
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Image 1 of 12: MENA rankings were tightly clustered around the mid-point of all nations surveyed: Libya 78, Saudi 82, Jordan 87, UAE 88, Algeria 91, Yemen 92, Morocco 93, Bahrain 96, Oman 99, Kuwait 100, Iraq 104, Syria 105, Israel 111, Egypt 113, Tunisia 122. For context, the USA ranked 134, largely due to runaway children and illegal immigrants.

end human trafficking
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Image 1 of 12: Since 2006, over 170 global companies signed the Athens Ethical Principles, pledging to ensure their businesses are slavery-free and not working with corporations benefiting from human trafficking. Signatories included H.E. Queen of Bahrain, Egypt Tourism Authority, AMIDEAST, Iran Development Bank, and former Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak!

child marriage
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Image 1 of 12: It’s critical to distinguish between forced vs. arranged marriages. Islam doesn’t sanction forced marriage. It’s not Islamic tradition; it’s jahiliyya custom (barbaric/pre-Islamic) rooted in indigenous cultures that persist in some Muslim communities. Child marriage is forced as minors are deemed incapable of giving proper consent.

CEO Andrew Wallis
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Image 1 of 12: Anti-slavery charity Unseen CEO Andrew Wallis said, "We’re a culture that doesn't allow business to openly deal with slavery in the supply chain. Corporations need to admit they have a problem. Then we’ll get to the heart of [this]. We have a ticking time-bomb on our hands. Unless we deal with this, the problem is going to get worse."

CEO Nick Grono
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Image 1 of 12: Walk Free Foundation CEO Nick Grono said, “It’s comforting to think that slavery is a relic of history, but it remains a scar on humanity on every continent. This index can shape efforts to root out modern slavery across the world. Ten countries are home to over 75% of those trapped in modern slavery. These must be our focus.”

Last year’s Academy Award-winning film 12 Years a Slave powerfully depicts the horrors of human bondage, but we don’t need to dial back 100 years to unveil the sights and sounds of forced servitude - just turn on the news (or better yet, look around the neighborhood)!

Weeks after 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria, the militant Islamist group Boko Haram claimed responsibility in a video in which leader Abubakar Shekau announced his plan to sell them. Yes, sell them! Making the girls the latest inductees to the modern-day slave market, which the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index estimates at 29.8 million people worldwide. The Index offers a snapshot of modern slavery, listing enslavement stats for 167 countries, including the Arab League member states, and Iran and Israel.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) host an estimated 2.46% of the world’s slaves (and that fact is only in consideration of the data that is actually traceable and on record!). Still skeptical? Just look at Indonesian and Malaysian construction workers in Qatar; spot the armies of Filipina and Sri Lankan domestics in Jordan and around the Gulf. Many work unregulated hours in horrendous conditions for dubious compensation.While modern slave chains may not always be "visible", they continue to constrain free movement just like the old irons.

Modern slavery has many forms. There’s forced labor, forced marriage, child marriage and child labor. Child soldiers, suicide bombers, and organ “donors” are also in the mix. But however you classify it, it boils down to severe sexual or physical exploitation and absolute deprivation of human freedom.

While MENA nations escaped placement in world’s top 25 slave states under the survey's definitions, our region was shamefully tagged with the highest level of discrimination against women, including issues directly linked with human trafficking

There is some good news, however. The International Labor Organization’s First Regional Conference on Human Trafficking in the Arab Region took place last summer in Amman, Jordan, and produced clear recommendations to improve anti-slavery efforts and the wider migration system. And more kudos to Jordan which, in cooperation with the Filipino government, forged an agreement giving a wide range of civil rights to domestic workers and providing access to legal protection. Jordan was the first Arab country to do this; will others follow?  

Check out our summary of 21st Century slavery in the Middle East, and read more about this pressing global issue at  the Walk Free Foundation website.

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