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Globalization

New group aims to eradicate modern-day slavery

Some 30 million people still live in slavery. A new foundation wants to see that number drop dramatically as quickly as possible. Its well-heeled supporters might be more effective than existing organizations.

Luisa was only 14 years old when she was brutally raped and beaten half-blind by her pimp. She finally escaped from him, only to find out that her family in Africa had been murdered - the pimp called to tell her that he had ordered the killings as revenge. It's the disturbing - but not atypical - fate of a modern-day slave.

She came to Germany believing she would be able to attend school - as she was promised by a man who visited her village. As an orphan struggling to survive, she agreed to leave for Germany. But when she arrived, there was no school. She was forced to work as a prostitute. "I made a voodoo oath not to go to the police," she told German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk. And when she finally went to the police, she suffered a hemorrhage. "Can you imagine what it's like for a young girl to have blood for three years that doesn't stop?" she asked.

Luisa's suffering came to an end when she entered a witness protection program in southern Germany, but an estimated 30 million people around the world still fight against living conditions that can be described as slavery. They are robbed of their freedom, controlled and exploited. The newly founded Walk Free Foundation has collected data about their lives in its Global Slavery Index 2013.


Modern-day slaves live mainly in Africa and Asia, with India, China, Pakistan and Nigeria high on the list. Russia also placed among the 10 countries with the highest number of enslaved people. The study also emphasized that no country was free of slaves. Looking at the percentage of people enslaved in a country, Mauritania, Haiti, Pakistan and India topped the list of offending nations.

The forms of slavery and possible solutions vary from place to place, according to Kevin Bales, the study's main author. Sexual exploitation in Russia, human trafficking in Moldavia, exploitation of domestic employees in Brazil, lack of due process in parts of Congo, forced marriage in China, inter-generational bonded labor in India.

"It is not one-size-fits-all," Bales told DW. "You have to look and see what the situation is in the country."

Uncertain number

For Germany, the study's authors estimated that about 10,500 people live in conditions comparable to slavery. Bales said, however, that it is very difficult to get solid numbers. "It is a completely hidden crime for the most part, and very difficult to measure," Bales said. Walk Free based its estimates on known cases of slavery, existing studies and reports from on the ground. Bales said the method has its weaknesses but that this should not delay action to end slavery.

Woman in a bar in the Patpong sex district in Bangkok. Photo: Ruxandra Guidi

Young women are forced into prostitution in Thailand - among other places

"If we waited for perfect numbers, people would be out there living and dying in slavery, and there would be nothing to help guide policy change," he added.

The Terre des Hommes children's aid agency in Germany said it welcomed the Walk Free study. Children's rights expert Barbara Küppers said she approved of the report's broad definition of slavery that included anything that put a person under constraint. The definition is also one of the reasons the study came to estimates of slavery that are higher than other reports, such as those from the International Labor Organization and the US State Department. Küppers added that the Free Walk calculations were plausible overall even if the figures for some countries could

Billionaires or the UN

Governments will now have a chance to provide more exact statistics and get involved in fighting slavery. "Many governments obviously do not know what is going on," Küppers said. That applies to industrialized countries like Germany as well. "I hope the index will raise pressure on governments," she added.

Migrant labourers work on a construction site on October 3, 2013 in Doha in Qatar. Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host is under fire over claims of using forced labour. Photo: KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images

Abuse and exploitation amount to '21st century slavery' in Qatar

Küppers said existing groups, such as the ILO, have failed to put enough of a focus on ending slavery. "They don't even have enough money to start a pilot project against exploitation," she said. The Walk Free Foundation, on the other hand, receives financial support from well-known philanthropists. A spokeswoman said Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest helped found the group and Bill Gates and Richard Branson are among its supporters.

Küppers said she was interested in seeing what groups of individuals outside of the United Nations could set for goals. "It is a step in the right direction to make demands of governments but certain economic sectors also cannot be forgotten," she said.

Bales said his group's goal was to see the number of enslaved people around the world drop from about 30 million to a few thousand as quickly as possible.

"Slavery should become as rare as cannibalism," Bales said. "Something that is so rare that it is always a shock when a single case is found."

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