Slavery: Ancient and Modern

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A new 2013 Global Slavery Index has been published by the Walk Free Foundation, in which we read that Mauritania tops the list of countries where slavery is an issue, when ranked in proportion to population size. Many media outlets were quick to transform this into a headline, which has already blazed its trail through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

There are some important observations to consider when reading these headlines, which I want to highlight:

  • The index uses a broad definition of “modern slavery” which includes child marriage and human trafficking, including illegal immigration. In the case of Mauritania, what exists there, and is still being witnessed today, is descendant slavery, as found in several countries in the index, and which is anything BUT modern. The number of Mauritanian citizens being trafficked is so tiny it defies measurement, and while child marriage is legal under Sharia law, marriage itself is so popular that once again, the numbers are going to be incredibly difficult to determine with any measure of accuracy. Those cases of child marriage we do hear of are mostly in more remote, rural areas with scant statistical records.
  • The population of Mauritania has not been reported using an official census since 2000, and even then, the numbers were deliberately under-reported, as noted by the World Bank and the UN, the secondary sources used by this new index. All numbers for population for the past 13 years have been estimated and extrapolated from other data sources. These sources are studies which will also determine the scope of aid programs, a major source of income for successive, corrupt, governments of Mauritania. Therefore we must assume the numbers reported for those studies is impacted by the opportunistic greed of the ruling administration.
  • The percentage arrived at by the index is 4%. This is in stark contrast to the figure of 10% to 20% usually reported by NGOs and human rights organisations. No explanation is offered for this apparent discrepancy. Clearly, the government, which remains sternly in denial of the continued existence or practice of slavery in Mauritania, will consider this a major PR coup in its favour.
  • Hillary Clinton has noted that the new index is “not perfect” and therefore, we should expect to see changes to it as it develops over time.
Freed into homelessness and unemployment, former slaves in Mauritania build makeshift villages from found materials. But they are often made homeless again, their shanty-towns bulldozed in land-grabs, as happened in Leimghetty, outside the capital, Nouakchott, in May 2013

Freed into homelessness and unemployment, former slaves in Mauritania build makeshift villages from found materials. But they are often made homeless again, their shanty-towns bulldozed under order of state officials, as happened in Leimghetty, outside the capital, Nouakchott, in May 2013

We must take the issue of slavery seriously, because it is widespread and damaging and goes against everything decent human beings hold dear. But we don’t need glossy reports or “world leaders” (see video below) moralising about the subject as much as we need to see real concrete plans about how this scourge is going to be eradicated, and sensible actions which offer practical help for the victims to regain a dignified independence as well as their liberty.

At the moment, it looks like the main concern about slavery as far as many states are concerned, is that the proceeds are part of the “grey economy,” and therefore those doing the enslaving are also avoiding paying tax. It would seem that governments are more comfortable with the notion of fostering the sprawling mass of aid and development organisations, and collecting income tax from their often very highly-paid executives, while the rest of the agencies’ funds are able to legitimately avoid standard company tax because they are registered charities.

With new, harsher penalties being announced by the UK for anyone found guilty of trafficking, there is a great deal of justifiable public concern for the fate of the victims in all this, which is not clear from the statements being issued. These concerns are echoed in every country where trafficking or slavery is a problem. In Mauritania, for example, “international pressure” has led to a succession of rules, laws and proclamations from the government of the time, paying lip-service to the exhortations of donor organisations and countries willing to invest or otherwise bring revenue into the state coffers, with humanitarian strings attached. Yet each time the regime has banned or outlawed the practice of slavery, it has led to groups of people being “freed” by their former owners out of panic and fear, rather than concern. This has created a group of socially isolated former slaves, cast out of a bad but familiar situation, into an even more extreme state of insecurity, with no food, shelter, or work, and lacking even a basic education.

How extreme? Bad enough that some of them were forced to seek shelter in the refugee camp built to house those displaced from the conflict in neighbouring Mali. What happened when they were supposedly discovered? The UNHCR refused to feed them, and stopped issuing food rations to the entire camp, provoking a riot during which the food stores were broken into and rations seized by angry, humiliated, hungry, people with nowhere else to go and no other choices. That camp has been open since January 2012, and those Mauritanians were there almost from the start, but they were initially useful in boosting numbers for fund-raising appeals and supplying dramatic subtext to help justify the deployment of French and other military forces in Mali. Now, they’re surplus to requirements. Ironically, it is against the law to be homeless in Mauritania, land of the nomad. Expelling these Mauritanians from the refugee camp will subject them to risk of arrest and possible imprisonment, and certainly to harassment.

Such groups are likely to be found in every country where slavery is a current issue, and several where it has supposedly been eliminated, although their situations will vary. They all need support, and it should be delivered with as much publicity and enthusiasm as the speeches and statements and statistics, if not more.

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