As many as 12 million people are held in servitude across the world. This includes approximately 800,000 people every year who are forced or induced to travel abroad for work, only to be pushed into bondage when they arrive at their destinations.
The remaining millions are enslaved in their home countries. Most slaves (80% of whom are women and 50% under the age of 18) come from countries such as Albania, Belarus, China, Romania, Russia and Thailand. The most frequent destinations are in Asia, followed by Western Europe, North America and the Middle East.
Just under half of the forced labourers work in the sex trade, while most others end up as construction or domestic workers. The slave trade is said to be worth $10 billion per year.
Typically, human traffickers offer excessively high-interest loans ostensibly to help migrating workers start in new destinations. When the promised job fails to materialise and they cannot pay their loans, the victim is stripped of all travel documents, given a false identity and forced into servitude.
The US has taken the lead in legal efforts to curb the trade by passing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000 (strengthened by Bush in 2003), which imposes stronger penalties on criminals and provides compensatory funds for victims. It has made the US particularly effective in cracking down on human traffickers. Less effective policies in France, Germany and Italy have opened their borders to large numbers of Eastern European forced labourers.
Under US law, the president can block foreign and military assistance to countries which fail to stop the slave trade. However, some of the worst offenders are either key US allies (Uzbekistan), important oil producers (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) or great powers (China, Indian, Russia), making it less likely that this presidential power will ever be put into effect.
Other anti-slavery measures that the rich nations should consider include naming and shaming the traders and the governments that support them. The US has gone further than most by publishing its annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
The EU could put more pressure on accession candidates (Bulgaria and Romania) or member states (Portugal and Latvia). The West could also empower its police, military and intelligence services to act more aggressively against human traffickers. Finally, bilateral treaties could be used to allow for the use of force against slave traders.
The new global slave trade
Ethan B Kapstein
Foreign Affairs, November/December 2006