It’s 2014, and Global Slavery Still Exists on a Huge Scale

In 1981, Mauritania became the last country on earth to abolish slavery. It took until 2007 for it to finally become illegal in that country to own another person. Still, the practice remains endemic, despite the efforts of activists to finally stamp out slavery there. It’s a fight that’s still ongoing. Government officials and religious ...

SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images
SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images
SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images

In 1981, Mauritania became the last country on earth to abolish slavery. It took until 2007 for it to finally become illegal in that country to own another person. Still, the practice remains endemic, despite the efforts of activists to finally stamp out slavery there.

In 1981, Mauritania became the last country on earth to abolish slavery. It took until 2007 for it to finally become illegal in that country to own another person. Still, the practice remains endemic, despite the efforts of activists to finally stamp out slavery there.

It’s a fight that’s still ongoing. Government officials and religious leaders have largely allowed slave owners to operate with impunity. With more than 150,000 people out of a population of around 3.9 million enslaved, the country has the highest proportion of slavery in the world. And last week, Mauritanian authorities detained Biram Dah Abeid, one of Foreign Policy‘s 2014 Leading Global Thinkers and the country’s most prominent anti-slavery activist.

A descendant of slaves, Abeid, who is pictured above, has worked tirelessly to pressure the government to hold slave owners accountable. On Wednesday, Abeid and other detained organizers were charged with illegal assembly and rebellion, according to Front Line Defenders, a human rights organization.

The charges come on the heels of the latest edition of the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation’s second annual global slavery index. The report, which was released Tuesday, estimates the prevalence of modern slavery — which includes "human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, and the sale and exploitation of children" — in 167 countries. In all, the report finds nearly 36 million people worldwide live in slavery.

For the second year in a row, Mauritania topped the list with an estimated 4 percent of its population subject to bondage. Uzbekistan, with 3.97 percent of its population enslaved, and Haiti, at 2.3 percent, landed in second and third place, respectively, on the index. In absolute terms, India, with just more than 14 million people in bondage, was the worst offender. Though five countries — India, China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia — accounted for more than 60 percent of the world’s slaves, the index reports incidents of slavery in every one of the 167 countries included. Yes, even you, Norway and Finland. (With fewer than 100 people living in slavery, Iceland and Luxembourg had the lowest figures in both prevalence and absolute numbers.)

"There is an assumption that slavery is an issue from a bygone era. Or that it only exists in countries ravaged by war and poverty," stated Andrew Forrest, chairman and founder of the Walk Free Foundation.

Although the report undermines this assumption in absolute terms, it remains true that populations living in conflict, specifically refugees or internally displaced peoples, are particularly at risk. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Syria, and the Central African Republic were all in the top 10 in terms of slavery’s prevalence as a proportion of population.

The report also seeks to chart government response to slavery. Mauritania, perhaps surprisingly, rates somewhere in the middle. Partly thanks to Abeid and other abolitionists, the country has made progress in addressing the crisis. This March, the government adopted a U.N. plan to eradicate slavery.

But Abeid’s arrest is a troubling step back — and a reminder that in Mauritania and countries across the globe, slavery in all its forms is still very much a reality.

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