A grim report from the European Parliament indicates that approximately 880,000 people are in slavery across the 27 nations that make up the European Union. This figure comes as part of a larger report on the role of organized crime in the EU, but it provides an important and chilling slice of the criminal world in Europe, where human trafficking generates profits of around $33 billion (€25 billion) and almost a third of the total people in slavery are victims of sex trafficking.
Who are all these slaves, where are they coming from and what kind of work are they doing?
Many are victims of sexual exploitation, including not just women, but children forced into sex work across the European union. Others are domestic slaves, laboring in the homes of wealthy and powerful people including diplomats — in France in particular, domestic slavery in the homes of diplomats is a substantial problem. Others are enslaved in manufacturing and production settings like garment making, and others work in the fields of Europe.
Forced beggars are also an issue on the streets of some European cities, and as children age, they’re constantly replaced with a new supply of young faces to plead for money from passerby. Researchers have found that many cases of slavery are very open and easily identified, with companies, households, and organizations making no effort to hide the use of slave labor.
Some modern-day slaves are lured across international borders with a bait and switch, promised one kind of work and given another. Some are refugees or people desperate to flee their countries who wouldn’t qualify for refugee status, along with people seeking a better life in the European Union. They encounter traffickers who promise work in Europe, and take up the offer, not realizing the full extent of the kind of work and what they’ll owe at the end of their journeys; immigrants may be told that they can work off their passage, only to find that once they arrive, the things they “owe” their traffickers never end.
For example, women from Russia and the former Soviet Union may be trafficked into the European Union for sex work, paying a fee for being brought into Europe and then learning that they need to work off part of the journey. The more they work, the more they owe, in a paradoxical system that bills them for housing and food, time spent in the rooms of a brothel, sheets, and any other supplies they might use. Thus, they’re kept in a state of slavery which, while different from the chattel slavery that many people think of when they hear the word “slavery,” is just as destructive.
People enslaved in Europe are coming from all over the world, with Nigeria and Vietnam supplying the most slaves to Europe. Many come from poor nations close to Europe, including some African countries like Morocco, Mali and Burundi, and nations right at the eastern border of the European Union. Chinese, Thai and other Asian laborers also come to Europe, as do workers from South America. Furthermore, trafficking also occurs within the European Union, where residents of poorer EU countries move across the borders of wealthier ones in the hopes of finding a better future, only to discover a life of slavery instead.
Many governments position this problem as one of immigration and border control, but anti-slavery advocates feel differently. They argue that human trafficking is an issue more complex than borders, and that increasingly isolationist and anti-immigrant policies in Europe may actually be driving slavery further underground, but they certainly aren’t solving the problem. Human rights group Anti-Slavery International pushes for the consideration of victims as what they are: victims, not criminals. It urges support for victims as those who have endured human rights violations, thus making it safe for people to come forward to report trafficking and related crimes.
Europe is not the only place with a modern day slavery problem. In the United States, modern day slaves are similarly all around us, picking our crops, caring for our children and ill family members, working in factories, and being forced into prostitution. The United States, as have many other countries, has been pressured to change the way it handles trafficking and slavery to ensure that victims aren’t criminalized, and to reform its laws to make prosecutions of traffickers easier and more effective.
As illustrated by the very public and widespread use of slaves in the construction of the World Cup facilities in Qatar, slavery is everywhere, and the profits to be generated from human trafficking are considerable.
Photo credit: Imagens Evangélicas.