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U.N. Says No to 21st Century Slavery

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 3 2013 (IPS) - They number some 21 million, spanning the globe from Asia to Africa to Latin America. The conditions under which they toil mark them out as the wretched of the earth. They receive no protection from their governments and even the international community has failed them by allowing the practice to continue unchecked. 

Such is the nature of slavery in the 21st century, far subtler than its historical predecessor, the transatlantic slave trade, which thrived between the 16th and 19th centuries, but no less extreme in its impact on human lives.

“Each year, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are kidnapped and sold into bondage across international borders. Trafficking in persons is an issue of great global concern and affects almost all countries,” General Assembly President John Ashe said in statement released at the United Nations headquarters Monday, as member states convened to mark the 66th annual International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

“This inhumane activity continues to flourish owing to vast economic disparities between nations, increasing flows of labour and commodities across international borders and transnational organised criminal networks,” Ashe added.

Other top officials came together at the U.N. to affirm their commitment to the complete eradication of contemporary forms of slavery, including “trafficking in persons, sexual exploitation, the worst forms of child labour, forced marriage and the forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.”

The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour report found that three out of every 1,000 people in the world work under “forced labour” at any given point in time.

Women comprise 55 percent of the total number of enslaved humans today, numbering some 11.4 million, compared to 45 percent – or roughly 9.5 million – men and boys. And while adults account for nearly 75 percent of people engaged in forced labour, far too many children – some 5.5. million of them – are bound to similarly dire situations.

The vast majority of modern-day slaves are enmeshed in the private economy, pressed into service by individuals or privately owned enterprises. Of these 18.5 million people, close to 22 percent are thought to be victims of sexual exploitation, while 68 percent are being forced to perform such grueling tasks as farm labour, domestic work, or manufacturing. The remaining 10 percent are victims of state oppression, including unpaid prison labourers.

According to the ILO’s report, the Asia-Pacific region outstrips the rest of the world in sheer numbers of forced workers, holding some 11.7 million in slavery, which accounts for 56 percent of the global total.

Africa follows close behind, with official reports counting some 3.7 million people working in conditions similar to slavery, while Latin America and the Caribbean account for nine percent of global victims.

“It is vital that we give special consideration to ending modern-day slavery and servitude, which affects the poorest, most socially excluded groups – including migrants, women, discriminated ethnic groups, minorities and indigenous peoples,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today.

In addition to urging member states to ratify the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, Ban pressed for increased support for the U.N. Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which has assisted tens of thousands of women and children in finding alternative employment and regaining some level of dignity in their lives.

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