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Very Real

6 Countries Where Slavery Still Exists

Thought slavery had ended? Not for everyone.

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt
Modern Slavery

Slavery is often characterized as an archaic, inhumane practice of the past. But it isn’t, as much as we would like it to be. Slavery is still a grim reality, one that millions of people are trapped in. In 2016, the Global Slavery Index counted 45.8 million enslaved people in 167 countries, with one in four victims being children. Still, there is progress being made; earlier this month, in Mauritania, a West African country where slavery is an ongoing problem, courts sentenced two slave owners to 10 and 20 years in prison, marking the country’s harshest ruling against slavery yet, Reuters reports.

Today, slavery takes many forms, from sex trafficking and forced marriage to forced and bonded labor. The Washington Post counts 60,000 enslaved people just here in the United States — if you don’t count prison labor.

Here are 6 more countries where slavery is still a part of life — for now.

1. Mauritania

Mauritania was the last country in the world to outlaw slavery in 1981. It wasn’t until 2007 that the government, facing international pressure, passed a law that would prosecute slave owners. Still, since then, the country has only prosecuted three cases of slavery, and according to the 2016 GSI, 1.06% of the population still live in bondage, with many children being born into slavery. This number changes, though — the aid group SOS Slavery, using a broader definition, estimated that 20% of the population was enslaved.

2. India

India is home to the largest number of enslaved people in the world. An estimated 18,354,700 people, or 1.40% of the population, are reportedly living in modern slavery, which includes intergenerational bonded labor, forced child labor, forced marriage, and commercial sexual exploitation, among other forms. According to a report from Free The Slaves, poor villagers in particular are vulnerable to being enslaved through debt bondage and bonded labor, both of which are illegal. They’re forced to work in unsanitary, dangerous conditions in an effort to repay a constantly growing debt. India’s slavery issue is similar to neighbors Bangladesh and Pakistan.

And while India’s intelligence agency advised Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “discredit” the September 2017 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Australian rights group Walk Free Foundation, the United Nations defended its research, according to Reuters. (Walk Free Foundation published a separate report earlier about India estimates — ILO did not single out countries.) The labor ministry vowed to rescue 18 million bonded labors by 2030.

3. China

In China, an estimated 3,388,400 people are victims of modern slavery (0.25% of the population), according to the 2016 GSI. Forced and child labor is one notable problem in the region, and it’s an issue that made headlines in 2007, after police rescued 450 captives — some of whom were children as young as 14 — who had been forced to work 16 to 20 hours a day with no pay in brick kilns. Many of them were beaten and even burned, and barely given enough food to live.

The trafficking of women and children into forced marriages and the sex trade is also a huge issue, according to the GSI. Female immigrants who are in the country illegally and reach out to others for help are especially at risk of being secretly sold as brides. An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 North Korean women were living in China and enduring different types of slavery in 2012, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

4. Uzbekistan

In Uzbekistan, 3.97% of the population were found to be living in modern slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index 2016 report. The country is one of the largest producers of cotton, but at great cost; every year, the government forces over one million citizens to work in the cotton fields for weeks on end, Geographical reports. Those who refuse risk losing their jobs, or, if they’re students, expulsion. And it’s presented as “voluntary” work, according to the New York Times. In October 2013, then-president Islam Karimov praised the cotton workers: “Since olden days cotton has been seen as a symbol of whiteness, of spiritual purity. And only people of pure mind and beautiful soul are capable of farming it.” Uzbekistan phased out minors in 2015 after international boycotts.

Current president Shavkat Mirziyoyev appears to be reforming this practice — thousands of school teachers, college students and healthcare workers were recalled from cotton fields last September, according to Reuters.

Some human rights groups remain doubtful that real change will follow.

5. Libya

In 2016, 1.130% of the Libyan population lived in modern slavery, and last November, the country shocked the world after a CNN investigation exposed actual slave auctions. Grainy cell phone footage of two young men being sold for the equivalent of $400 each seemed like something out of a nightmarish film, and sparked global outrage and protests. According to a report by Time, many migrants and refugees attempting to reach Europe by sea get caught in Libya and are kept in “horrific” detention centers where they are vulnerable to being beaten, raped, and sold as slave labor. Shortly after CNN’s original report, the country’s government announced that they’d launched a formal investigation into the problem .

6. North Korea

North Korea is a number one offender, according to the 2016 GSI, with 4.37% of the population living in modern slavery — the highest proportion, though not number, in the world. In 2015, UN investigator Marzuki Darusman estimated that 50,000 North Korean citizens had been sent abroad to work in mining, logging, and the textile and construction industries. Sent mainly to China, Russia and the Middle East, these enslaved people generated around $2.3 billion per year for the government. Meanwhile, the worker themselves often worked up to 20 hours per day under horrendous conditions, and only earned on average between $120-$150 per month. Employers paid “significantly higher amounts” to the North Korean government, Darusman claimed. The New York Times reports that the conditions are so desperate in North Korea that laborers often pay bribes to go to Russia.

Slavery is ubiquitous in our “modern” world, even if we may not see it on a daily basis. Just check out this map locating the world’s 30~ million slaves. Slavery is hidden, it’s quiet, it’s insidious.