GENEVA (AN) — Modern slavery overtook the lives of at least 40.3 million people worldwide in 2016, according to estimates by an international organization working to end the prevalence of one person taking away another person’s freedom to control their body or refuse work.
The latest figures are nearly double what was reported six years ago, owing to a new system of reporting data that now includes forced marriage as a form of slavery.
"Freedom is taken away by threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power and deception. The net result is that a person cannot refuse or leave the situation," the Australian-based Walk Free Foundation said about the findings of its 2018 Global Slavery Index.
The report found the highest concentration of modern slavery was in North Korea — where one-in-10 people live under such conditions — but it also showed bigger numbers than previously reported in Australia, Europe and the United States.
Based on data from 167 nations, the report uncovered at least 25.9 million people trapped in forced labor and 15.4 million in a forced marriage; the victims were 71% female, 29% male.
The vast majority of those in forced marriages were girls and women, and over a third of all those forced to marry were children. Some 40% were under the age of 15 when the marriage took place, according to Anti-Slavery International, the world's oldest international human rights organization.
The Walk Free Foundation's index determined the incidence of modern slavery is most prevalent in repressive regimes. But it said the Group of 20 industrialized and developing economies with high GDPs also bear heavy responsibility because they import US$354 billion of "at-risk products" — those that are created under suspicious circumstances — including US$144 billion in the United States alone.
Rich nations also bear responsibility
Chief among the Group of 20's imports were US$200.1 billion in laptops, computers and mobile phones, US$127.7 billion in clothing, US$12.9 billion in seafood, US$3.6 billion in cocoa and US$2.1 billion in sugar cane.
The report said traffickers recruited an "unknowable" number of child soldiers and handled US$1.7 billion of illegal trade in human organs. The World Health Organization has estimated that one-in-10 organ transplants involves an illegal trade.
"The black market organ trade has been documented in countries as diverse as India, Pakistan, Kosovo and the Philippines," the report said. "Poverty and corruption are two of the principal underlying factors in organ trafficking."
But it pointed out that wealthy countries like Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States receive organs from developing countries such as China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines.
The report also highlighted "the connection between modern slavery and two major external drivers — highly repressive regimes, in which populations are put to work to prop up the government, and conflict situations which result in the breakdown of rule of law, social structures, and existing systems of protection."
It was released at the United Nations' headquarters in New York, where the founder of the Walk Free Foundation, Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest, said he hoped to end modern slavery.
At the news conference, Yeon-mi Park, a human rights activist and student at Columbia University, reminded the press that each of the tens of millions of victims is a person that deserves compassion.
"This is time to unravel slavery," said Park, a North Korean defector who escaped to China, where she was trafficked and forced into marriage. She started a group to help North Korean trafficking victims.
Modern slavery crosses borders
The report is intended to prod governments and businesses to take steps towards ending the exploitation. It said the most responsive nations among the Group of 20, or G20, have been Brazil, Britain, China, France, Germany, Italy and the United States.
But there has been little to no action so far, it said, from Argentina, Australia, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Turkey. That may change in Australia, which recently announced it will introduce supply chain transparency laws.
"One of the most important findings of the 2018 Global Slavery Index is that the prevalence of modern slavery in high GDP countries is higher than previously understood, underscoring the responsibilities of these countries," the report said. "The realities of global trade and commerce make it inevitable the products and proceeds of modern slavery will cross borders."
After North Korea, the report said, the nations that are the worst offenders are Afghanistan, Burundi, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan and South Sudan.
Anti-Slavery International, founded in 1839, became the first international organization to demand recognition of forced marriage as a form of slavery with its 2013 report entitled "Out of the Shadows."
Last year it had what it called a "big campaign win" when forced marriage was included in the International Labor Organization's new estimates of people trapped in slavery.
Based on that change, data from the ILO and U.N. Migration, or IOM, went into the Walk Free Foundation's estimate of 40.3 million people in slavery worldwide, nearly doubling the 20.9 million figure reported in 2012.
“We welcome the inclusion of this form of abuse in the slavery estimates,” Anti-Slavery's Director Aidan McQuade said in a statement. “The treatment of millions of girls who were forced to marry against their will finally should be recognized for what it is — slavery, hidden under the guise of marriage."