150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, buying and selling people into forced labor is bigger than ever. What “human trafficking” really means.
RANGOON, Burma — Earlier this year, Ko Lin, 21 at the time, left his hometown of Bago, 50 miles northeast of Rangoon, with a friend to look for work in Myawaddy, near the Thai border. The two found jobs there as day laborers loading and offloading goods, anything from rice to motorcycles, being illicitly transported by truck in and out of Thailand. After a month, Ko Lin had saved up the equivalent of about US$150 and decided to rejoin his family in Bago. Stopping first to pray at a local pagoda with, he and his friend met a super-amiable young woman who ended up pitching an opportunity to work in Thailand. Her uncle, she said, could arrange great jobs for them there.
Ko Lin was reluctant but bent to his friend’s enthusiasm. The uncle turned out to be a trafficker who sold the two into forced labor in Chonburi, a city 60 miles east of Bangkok. They were taken there by an irregular route that involved walking through the jungle for eight days. Several weeks after arriving in Chonburi, Ko Lin was told he’d now be working at sea. When he resisted, he was knocked unconscious and woke up separated from his friend on a fishing boat in the Gulf of Thailand. From this point on, for months, he rarely if ever had more than two hours of sleep a night, always on a shared, cramped bed; he was given three meals only on days when the captain felt he’d pulled in enough fish to earn it; and when he was fed at all, it was always dregs from a catch that couldn’t be sold on the market. His arms regularly became infected from the extended exposure of minor wounds to sea water. If he complained that he was feeling unwell, the crew would beat him. He was injured multiple times by heavy blocks or booms, once having to tend to a head wound with a handful of wet rice. Three months out, Ko Lin was rescued in a police raid.
There are now twice as many people enslaved in the world as there were in the 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade.
Ma Moe, 34, and her husband lived in a suburb about an hour outside Rangoon, poor enough that on some days they had nothing to eat. A friend offered her a job as a domestic worker in China where, she was told, she could make between $100 and $200 a month. Despite her husband’s objections, she decided to go. Near the border, her friend told her the trip would soon get rough and she should take some pills so as not to get carsick. The pills knocked her out almost immediately. When she came to, she was in a small village in China; she still doesn’t know where. Kept with a few other women in a small house, Ma Moe was then taken around to different villages where she was offered up for sale as a “wife.” After a failed escape attempt, when she was beaten by local police, a man from northern China bought her. By now, having spent a month-and-a-half as a Burmese commodity on a Chinese black market, she could hardly eat from the stress and was emaciated. Her owner was concerned — he wanted a child — so he had Ma Moe’s blood tested; the results showed that she’s HIV-positive; and he ended up abandoning her at the bus station. With no hope of being able to get back to Burma, she prayed to die. But a young newspaper seller, fending off an attempt by another apparent trafficker to get Ma Moe to go with him, called a police hotline for trafficking victims. The police coordinated Ma Moe’s transfer to a Burmese anti-trafficking task force, and they ultimately took her home.
There’s a plain-language word for the horror stories that Ko Lin and Ma Moe have survived, as anachronistic as it might sound: slavery. Though now universally illegal, slavery still exists, and it’s common — here in Burma, across Southeast Asia, and around the world.
The leading demographic accounts of contemporary slavery project a global slave population of between 20 million and 30 million people. The highest ratios of slaves worldwide are from South and Southeast Asia, along with China, Russia, and the former satellite states of the Soviet Union. There is a significant slave presence across North Africa and the Middle East, including Lebanon. There is also a major slave trade in Africa. Descent-based slavery persists in Mauritania, where children of slaves are passed on to their slave-holders’ children. And the North Korean gulag system, which holds 200,000 people, is essentially a constellation of slave-labor camps. Most of the world’s slaves are in sedentary forms of servitude, such as hereditary collateral-debt bondage, but about 20 percent have been unwittingly trafficked by predators through deception and coercion. Human trafficking is often highly mobile and dynamic, leveraging modern communications and logistics in the same basic ways contemporary business does generally. After the earthquake of 2010 devastated Haiti, Hispaniola was quickly overrun with opportunistic traffickers targeting children to sell into forced domestic work or brothels.
As pervasive as contemporary slavery is, it’s remained marginal as a global issue until relatively recently. There are a couple of big reasons why — one having to do with the scale of the problem, the other with the idea of slavery itself.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates the number of slaves in the world today at around 21 million. Kevin Bales, of Free the Slaves — the U.S. affiliate of the world’s oldest human-rights organization, the U.K.-based Anti-Slavery International — (and the author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy) puts it at 27 million. Siddharth Kara of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy says more than 29 million.
That range represents a tightening consensus. In the 1990s, some accounts had the global slave population as high as 100 million; others had it as low as 2 million. “It was nuts,” says Bales. “I traced all these numbers back. The 100-million number, I finally found this guy in India who’d said it at at UN conference. I asked him, ‘How did you get that?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, it was just a guess.’ So nobody had the number.”
Bales’s 27 million — which as a statistician he considers a “conservative estimate” — is derived from secondary-source analysis. “It’s still not great,” he says, “in the sense that it’s not based on random-sample surveys at the grass-roots level. We’re doing that now, though, building much sounder numbers, and they’re still coming out in the same range. … So we’re getting closer.”
In which case, assuming even the rough accuracy of 27 million, there are likely more slaves in the world today than there have been at any other time in human history. For some quick perspective on that point: Over the entire 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade, 13.5 million people were taken out of Africa. That’s equal to just half the the world’s slave population today.
Excerpt, read Slavery’s Global Comeback –By J.J. Gould | The Atlantic