Slavery in the Twenty-First Century

By Dodson, Howard | UN Chronicle, September-November 2005 | Go to article overview
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Slavery in the Twenty-First Century

Dodson, Howard, UN Chronicle

A recent episode of the award-winning American television series "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" opened with the investigation of a murder of a young African boy who had been dismembered and left at what appeared to be the scene of a ritual religious sacrifice. As the investigation unfolded, the murder faded into the background, and what came front and centre was the discovery of an extensive slave trading operation in twenty-first-century New York City. The victims in this particular episode were young African men and women, who were being bought and sold into sexual slavery or unrequited labour in the commercial capital of the world. Of course, the episode ended with a disclaimer proclaiming that the story was fictitious and any similarity with actual facts and personalities is purely coincidental. However, reel life imitates real life.


The slave trade is back in full force. This modern slave trade, however, is not limited to just young Africans; women and children are also being enslaved in almost every continent. It is estimated that there are over 27 million enslaved persons worldwide, more than double the number of those who were deported in the 400-year history of the transatlantic slave trade to the Americas. What is remarkable is that this unprecedented trafficking largely goes unnoticed. The 27 million victims of the modern slave trade are more invisible to the world's eye than were the 10 million to 12 million Africans who were forcibly sent to the Americas during the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. How do we account for this fact in this age of media and communications overload and transparency?

The first problem is related to the major differences between transatlantic and modern slave trades. The transatlantic slave trade was racially-biased. The victims were Africans who were captured and sold into slavery in Africa and transported to the Western Hemisphere to work in the economies, principally in agriculture and mineral, of the European colonial societies. Combined efforts of abolitionist movements led to the British and American abolition of the slave trade and the eventual demise of slavery itself in the Western Hemisphere during the nineteenth century.

The modern slave trade is quite different. All racial groups are objects of the trade. Though women and children are its principal victims, those who are bought, sold and enslaved come from almost every continent and are sold into slavery in virtually every country. Unlike the transatlantic slave trade, they are not being recruited to work in any specific geographical area or any clearly defined industry or economy. True, many of the women are sold as prostitutes or concubines, and the children as labourers, but there are relatively few established and stable routes and markets. While the transatlantic slave trade was legal and carried on as a form of legitimate commerce, the modern slave trade is illegal. Records of these underground business transactions are largely hidden from public view; so are the human beings who are bought and sold in this twenty-first-century slave trafficking. The pervasiveness and the relatively invisible nature of this illegal trafficking make it difficult to define and develop a strategy for abolishing it. The question arises: "How should one begin?"

If there is anything that we should learn from the experiences of those who fought to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, it is, first and foremost, to recognize the millions of enslaved individuals as human beings, members of the human family. In their zeal to eliminate the horrors of slavery from their societies, abolitionists embraced and propagated the notion that enslaved Africans were a "lesser breed" of humanity. Victims of modern-day slavery are frequently viewed in a similar way; those who are labelled prostitutes are especially seen as a lower class of human being.

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