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

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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