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Modern slavery traps almost 50 million people

New estimates show nearly one of every 150 people trapped in modern slavery, up 23% in five years. That's 49.6 million working or married involuntarily.

Then-Foreign Minister Stef Blok of the Netherlands speaks at a 2019 conference on modern slavery and human trafficking
Then-Foreign Minister Stef Blok of the Netherlands speaks at a 2019 conference on modern slavery and human trafficking (AN/BZ)

GENEVA (AN) — New estimates show that nearly one out of every 150 people in the world are caught up in some form of modern slavery, a 23% increase over five years. That's 49.6 million people who are working or married involuntarily.

Forced labor accounts for 27.6 million; the other 22 million are trapped in a forced marriage based on 2021 data, according to a new report on Monday from the International Labor Organization, or ILO; the Walk Free international human rights group; and the International Organization for Migration, or IOM.

And it's 9.3 million more people — many of them women and children — than in Walk Free's 2018 report based on 2016 data. That report found 40.3 million people trapped by modern slavery.

“It is shocking that the situation of modern slavery is not improving. Nothing can justify the persistence of this fundamental abuse of human rights,” ILO's Director-General Guy Ryder said.

To fight the problem, said Ryder, effective government policies and regulations are "fundamental" but international standards also are important. "An all-hands-on-deck approach is needed," he said. "Trade unions, employers' organizations, civil society and ordinary people all have critical roles to play.”

The biggest part of the increase, 6.6 million, was due to forced marriages. But the two United Nations agencies, ILO and IOM, and Walk Free all say the true number of forced marriages, particularly those involving children aged 16 and younger, is likely far greater because of the narrow definitions used to gather the estimates.

Some 52% of all forced labor and 25% of forced marriages occur in upper-middle income or high-income nations, but the report shows modern slavery happens in almost every nation and across all cultures, ethnicities and religions.

New 'legal frameworks' urged

The report says 86% of forced labor is in the private sector; the other 14% is imposed by governments. Among the 28 million people in forced labor, 3.3 million, or 12 percent, are children. More than half the children's cases involve commercial sexual exploitation.

Twenty-three percent of all the people in forced labor are subjected to commercial sexual exploitation; almost 4-in-5 of these cases are women or girls. Two-thirds of all forced marriages, which are closely tied to family pressure and patriarchal attitudes and practices, are in Asia and the Pacific.

Migrant workers are three times more likely to be vulnerable to forced labor and trafficking. Fixing that problem "depends first and foremost on national policy and legal frameworks," said IOM's Director-General António Vitorino. "The whole of society must work together to reverse these shocking trends, including through implementation of the Global Compact on Migration.”

In December 2018, the U.N. General Assembly approved the non-binding Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. It tries to solve some of the polarizing but age-old issues surrounding people crossing borders by setting up a universal system for ensuring their humane movement.

The pact, which resulted from two years of hard-fought negotiations, creates a voluntary system of global governance in which migrants have rights and the most vulnerable among them deserve protections. IOM estimates that 3.5% of the world's population, or 270 million people, are migrants, up from 2.8% in 2000.

Walk Free's Founding Director Grace Forrest calls modern slavery the antithesis of sustainable development. Walk Free works to end what it calls the prevalence of one person taking away another person’s freedom to control their body or refuse work.

"Yet, in 2022, it continues to underpin our global economy," said Forrest. "It is a man-made problem, connected to both historical slavery and persisting structural inequality. In a time of compounding crises, genuine political will is the key to ending these human rights abuses.”