Monday, August 31, 2009

Modern day slavery

Through one of my colleagues' twitter feed, I became aware of this interview with Benjamin Skinner, author of A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery

There Are More Slaves Today Than at Any Time in Human History

As the title of the interview makes clear, slavery is not a thing of the past, but is very much still happening, and in greater numbers than ever seen before. It's estimated that there are 27 million people living in slavery world-wide (though governments only acknowledge the existence of 12.3 million slaves).

This high number is not due to some broad definition of what constructs a slave, but rather is based on Kevin Bales' definition

slaves are those forced to work, held through fraud, under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence

This doesn't just include things like sex slaves, but also people who are forced to work without pay, to pay off generational debt (i.e. debt made by earlier generations).

It's a depressing high number, and something which cannot be addressed except through international organizations like the UN. Some, especially religious, groups tries to buy the slaves free, but as Skinner says, this only cause more problems.

TM: These are those who practice what they call redemptions, buying slaves their freedom. Who's doing it, and what's your analysis of it?

BS: On the basis of three months spent in southern and northern Sudan, two months in southern Sudan in particular. ... There was one particular evangelical group based in Switzerland, organized and run by an American who raised cash around the States. They'd go to a Sunday School or a second-grade class in Colorado, talk about slavery, and say, "Bring us your lunch money. If you can get us $50, we will buy a slave's freedom."

It was a very effective sales pitch. They managed to raise over $3 million dollars by my calculations over the course of the 1990s.

In theory, they were giving money to "retrievers" who would go into northern Sudan, and through whatever means necessary, secure the slaves' freedom and bring them back down into the south.

In the context of the Sudanese civil war, slavery is used as a weapon of war by the north. Northern militias raid southern villages, and in many cases, kill the men and take the women and children as slaves and as a weapon of genocide. That much is not questioned. There is no question that these slave raids were going on.

I found that redemption on the ground was enormously problematic. There was scant oversight. They were literally giving duffel bags full of cash to factions within the rebels that were at that point resisting an ongoing peace process.

What they risked doing, whether through recklessness or through intent, was to become essentially angels of destruction at a time when a negotiated peace was just beginning to take hold. Thankfully, at this point they've scaled back the redemptions.

Skinner supports the organization Free the Slaves through donating parts of his royalties. I took a look at the website, and it certainly looks like a worthwhile organization.

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