Although many of us in the Western world tend to think of slavery as belonging to a past age, this is far from the case. A recent survey carried out by the Australian human rights group, the Walk Free foundation, estimates that there are still around 29.8 million people living in servitude around the world. Today slavery encapsulates the status of those in forced labour, any human who is bought, sold or trafficked, forced or servile marriages and the exploitation of children for work or combat as well as descent-based slavery (those who inherit their status as slaves through generations). All in all, it’s a grim picture for those almost 30 millions people worldwide.
Most of those featured on this list of enslaved nations are in the developing world where there are often few if any resources to protect those who at risk. Cultural traditions, too, mean that what for us is deemed as inhumane slavery for others may be a fact of life in an unequal world. Women and children are those most at risk of slavery, in particular through arranged or forced marriages at a young age, as well as through human trafficking which sees people traded and used as drug mules, prostitutes and labourers. Such practices see families torn apart and humans degraded.
The statistics here rank countries according to the number of people currently living in servitude in the country, although the overall populations of these nations are in themselves enormous. When taken as a percentage of the entire population, the numbers living servitude are starker for some countries not included on the following list: At present the small West African nation of Mauritania has the largest proportion of its civilians living as slaves, at 4%. Below, however, we’re taking a look at the countries with the largest net number of slaves in the world and examining the reasons for the continued disregard for basic human rights in the 21st century.
10. Bangladesh 343,192
The most memorable incidence of slave-type conditions in Bangladesh to reach western ears was of course the 2013 collapse of a garment factory, killing over 400 and injuring 2,500. The workers were living on a wage of only $50 per month and working long hours in dangerous, overcrowded conditions. The pope called the disaster an act of slave labour, but sadly this is only the tip of the iceberg in Bangladesh. Although the factory workers were paid, their wages were so tiny that it made they were unable to free themselves from the factory or poverty. According to the Walk Free Foundation, the main types of slavery in the country are bonded labour and sexual exploitation. Many Bangladeshis are trafficked abroad to work in the sex industry. The tea and fishing industry are said to be particular hotbeds of bonded labour.
9. Burma: 384,037
As in the case of Bangladesh, many Burmese people living in slavery are trafficked abroad to carry out their servitude. Forced labour is a common form of slavery, with many Burmese working in the quarries of nearby India. Many, however, are brought to Thailand to crew fishing vessels unaware that they are being led into a world of slavery. They are promised payment -which they never receive – and are told they owe those who brought them into this bonded world a great deal of money. On a trawler kept out at sea there is no way for these slaves to attempt escape; the workers are as much prisoners as they are slaves.
8. Democratic Republic of Congo: 462,327
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a central African nation that’s notoriously dangerous, and slavery is just one aspect of the harshness of life in the region. Rebel militias, political instability and one of the highest numbers of displaced people in the world are other notable features of life in DR Congo. However the country is also rich in natural resources with fertile land for farming, large areas for forest for timber as well as diamond and mineral mines aplenty. Much of the slavery here comes in the form of exploiting these natural resources, with men, women and children enslaved as labourers. Part of this tragedy is that in spite of all these resources and the hundreds of thousands of Congolese people forced to cultivate them, DR Congo remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
7. Thailand: 472,811
Thailand is a country that receives many foreign nationals as slaves but the number looked at here represents how many Thai nationals are currently enslaved. Thailand is one of the wealthiest regions in Southeast Asia and the growing economy has created an increased demand for workers. The country is one of the world’s biggest producers of fish and as such, the fishing industry is rife with unethical approaches to its workers. As with the case of the Burmese slaves in Thailand, boats stay at sea for months at a time, making escape impossible, and workers are forced to stay on when they do return to shore with the empty promise of a wage that will never come. The sex trade is one of the main areas of concern with regard to slavery in Thailand, with Thai women particularly vulnerable. Children are also susceptible to such forms of slavery and exploitation in the region.
6. Russia: 516,217
Russia is a country that many might be surprised to see on this list: as a developed nation, we often assume a strong economic status is a safety net for exploited workers. However, as the Walk Free foundations points out, the sheer size of Russia and its boarders makes it difficult to even track migrant works in and out of the country, let alone protect those who are in some way exploited in this vast land. Human trafficking is the main problem when it comes to slavery in Russia, with the majority of those who are enslaved being women, sent to other parts to Europe to work in the sex industry. Forced or arranged marriages between Russian women and foreign men are also common. Within Russia’s borders children too are exploited – either forced to rob or beg on the streets or used as drug traffickers as a foil for the dealers. Organised crime gangs are responsible for this widespread network of exploitation and are notoriously difficult for the authorities to track down and effectively curtail.
5. Ethiopia: 651,110
Having ranked as having the 12th highest prevalence rate of slavery in the world, Ethiopia is a nation that is looking at human exploitation on a number of different levels. According to UNICEF, Ethiopia has one of the highest rates of child labour in the world, which in itself means that a lack of education and the problem of exploited labour continues. Boys are forced to work as labourers or on the streets while girls are used in the sex industry. For adults, migration has been a key feature of workers’ life in recent years. Many women are poorly educated and attempt to migrate to find domestic work, only to find themselves exploited. For men, many try to emigrate to the wealthy Middle East only to find themselves in forced labour roles such as goat or camel herding
4. Nigeria: 701,032
One of central Africa’s largest and wealthiest nations, Nigeria still has huge numbers of slaves inside its borders. Migration leading to forced work is a major problem, as too are forced marriages and human trafficking. Girls who are made child brides to much older men is a common problem: marriage for anyone under the age of 18 is illegal by Nigerian law, but in the nation’s rural Muslim regions, sharia law is held above this, leaving girls vulnerable to forced marriage, exploitation and servitude. Female circumcision as well as home births in such rural areas exacerbate the problem, with few ways to protect vulnerable women from such a coerced life.
3. Pakistan: 2,127,132
With over 2 million people enslaved in Pakistan, the extent and severity of the problem is clear. Bonded labour is seen as the primary form of enslavement in the country, with as many as 1.8 million men, women and children living in such conditions, according to the Asian Development Bank.
The majority of these are rural citizens who have migrated in search of work. Mining, agriculture and fishing are some of the industries affected by this, although the primary sector is said to be the brick kiln industry. Education and literacy levels in the country are low, leaving such workers open to exploitation. Many workers emigrate abroad but fall victim to similar forced labour in foreign lands. Within Pakistan child labour is another problem: many children are forced to beg on the streets, giving their “earnings” back to their alleged employer. The selling of human organs on the black market too is said to be a smaller but still significant problem, as is the practice of Sharia law to carry out underage marriages.
2. China: 2,949,213
As the nation with the largest population in the world with a rapidly developing economy, it’s no surprise to hear that many Chinese have fallen through the cracks during these changes. Those living in rural regions are most at risk of exploitation: lower education levels and restrictions on migration mean that many find themselves working highly labour-intensive jobs that are underpaid and poorly supervised. The nation’s “re-education through labour” scheme has been harshly criticised, and is seen by many as a legitimate form of exploitative labour in the country. In addition to this, the massive Chinese diaspora means that many workers are being exploited outside of China’s borders and are invisible to the rest of the world.
1. India: 13,956,010
The sheer number of people currently enslaved in India is truly shocking. Almost 14 million people are enslaved in the region with the caste system’s legacy still contributing to the country’s massive social and economic inequalities despite the nation’s recent employment of the system for affirmative action among those in the lower caste.
Bonded labour – which runs through generations of Indian families – human trafficking, child labour, forced marriages, forced labour and the sexual exploitation of women are all taking place in the country. Slaves are mainly trafficked within India itself, but with many separated from their families, there is little if any chance of them escaping to a better life. Debt bondage between landowners and their tenants is another common form of servitude and exploitation. As in the case of Nigeria, Indian law does not permit much of this behaviour but has no way of stopping such practices in remote rural regions. Many are critical of how little progress has been made with regard to women’s rights and human trafficking in the country and the nation’s reluctance to tackle child labour is seen as a clear sign that not enough is being done to protect Indian citizens.