Shameful and striking: Slavery is alive and beating in the Middle East

Published October 22nd, 2013 - 02:47 GMT
With over 150,000 slaves, Mauritania has the most number of modern slaves in the world. (Getty)
With over 150,000 slaves, Mauritania has the most number of modern slaves in the world. (Getty)

In the modern imagination, slavery is often thought of as an evil of the past, a period we read about in history books, an epoch whose horrors we relive while watching movies like Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave.

If only that were true. Not in the Middle East at least.

The reality is that the scourge of slavery is alive and omnipresent in the modern world. According to a report released by the Walk Free Foundation last week, as many as 29.8 million people are victims of slavery globally. These are people who are held in bonded labor, are victims of human trafficking or are forced into child marriage.  

With over 150,000 slaves, Mauritania ranks first globally as the country with the largest slave population.  In other hot spots of the MENA region, Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE were scarlet lettered out as the countries that had the ignominious honor of hosting the most number of slaves.

The MENA region recorded the highest number of cases of discrimination against women.  In addition, the report said that a large number of migrants are forced into bonded labor every year in the region.

However, statistics don’t convey the seriousness of the problem anymore than watching a boxing match on TV conveys the force of a Mike Tyson punch.

The truth is slaves are everywhere: there are in our neighborhoods cleaning homes, building stadiums in our cities and making goods that we use on a daily basis.

Writers like Umaima al-Khamis have exposed the plight of Asian and African maids in Saudi Arabia, illuminating the every day stories of the "hired help" being "held" captive for decades (like the case of the Sri Lankan maid who was rescued after 17 years of being held without pay or ability to speak with her family). "Slave" maids have also gone so far as contemplating and following through with suicide-such as the case of the Ethiopian maid  who electrocuted herself in a bathtub. The dreadful conditions in KSA has pushed scholars like Madawi Al-Rasheed of King’s College, London to call publicly for the uniform application of the Kingdom's laws to both citizens and non-citizens.

As Qatar prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, reports have surfaced that at least one worker dies every day during construction of the stadiums. According to a report in the Guardian, "more than half of the deaths occurred due to heart attacks, heart failure and on-site accidents." Workers have not been compensated for their work, and many of them have had their passports confiscated. Some of the workers have even been denied access to free drinking water.

In Jordan, child labor is rife with some 30,000 children working, mainly in shops, cafes, and restaurants. Recently, newspaper reports surfaced of a Syrian thirteen year-old Mohammed, who, instead of going to school, stands at the traffic lights of Amman, hawking items for a living.

In the build-up to the US civil war, Lincoln said that the evil of slavery “endangered civil liberties, and that it made the nation a hypocrite in its foreign relations.” Indeed, how can one take countries preaching about human rights in the United Nations seriously when they violate those very rights back at home?

Though often hailed as being the sole “developed” country in the Middle East, Israel's human rights record from both the past and present casts a dark shadow on the holy land. As Laila Farsakh's 2005 book depicts, Palestinians, particularly women, were hired, in a cruel twist of fate, to farm and construct a land that was once their own followng the 1967 war and ensuing occupation of the West Bank. These workers were employed on third world-wages and harassed daily at checkpoints en route to their work since Israel would not allow them to stay on the Jewish territory for "security reasons." Such practices for the most part ended with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, but we can "never forget" that the Jewish state was built at the hands of many Palestinians.

After the Intifida that rendered Palestinians potential suicide bombers, Israel’s labor market was left with a shortage of workers in its construction, agriculture and health sector, which in turn led to the creation of a massive human trafficking sector. Low-level skilled workers from China, Romania, Africa, Turkey, Thailand, and Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India face forced labor conditions. Many have had their passports confiscated by their "handlers," never receive wages due to debt bondages, and face threats and physical intimidation. Today, women from Russia and former Soviet states are commonly trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

The most flagrant form of modern-day slavery lies with the African ayslum seekers, mainly Eriterian and Sudanese, who besides being at risk of commercial and sexual exploitation, face brutal forms of racism in the Jewish state. In 2013, Israel admitted forcibly issuing Ethiopian women with long-acting contraceptive shots.This systematic sterilization in itself constitutes a modern-day form of slavery, where the state claims ownership of women’s bodies to deny them child-bearing human rights.

In the Muslim world, given Islam’s theological emphasis on the equality of mankind, you might hope to witness less incidents of human subjugation than in other parts of the world. We should remember that even as Prophet Muhammad (Blessed Be His Name and PBUH) sought to convince the Quraysh, some of the earliest adherents of Islam were the poorest people of the society, many of whom were slaves. Indeed, who can forget the story of Abu Bakr, who being unable to watch the sufferings of Bilal, the Abyssinian slave, purchased him from his owner and set him free? Omar Al-Khattab’s honorable legacy left a lot to strive to and live by but on slavery, he famously said, “How can you enslave people when their mothers bore them as free men?".

We’ve always been excellent at applying teachings from our past to our present situation. Let’s do it again now. Let’s abolish slavery.

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