Punishing slave traders and shutting down slave markets will do little to reduce slavery, argues Maurice Middleberg
"What is needed is a strategy that cuts off slavery at its roots," he writes
Education, healthcare and law enforcement are key
Editor’s Note: Maurice I. Middleberg is executive director of Free the Slaves. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.
The righteous outrage from the international community at the recent uncovering by CNN of a slave market selling migrants in Libya will matter only if it yields a response that will stem the buying and selling of human beings.
The prevalent immediate response has been to urge Libya to stem slave trading and calling for mass repatriation of migrants to their West African countries of origin. While both steps should be taken, neither will do much to reduce slavery. What is needed is a strategy that cuts off slavery at its root.
CNN has performed a great service by dramatically capturing egregious cases of modern slavery. Similar stories could be told about slaves flowing from the Middle East into Europe, from south Asia into the Gulf states, and from Central America into the United States.
Perpetrators should be held accountable, victims must be protected or returned home. But shutting down one slave market or even several won’t address the many, insidious forms of slavery that are less obvious though more common. Slavery largely exists in seemingly ordinary businesses like agriculture, construction, mining, textiles, fishing and restaurants and most often happens without international travel.
Many of the migrants being exploited in Libya are from West Africa. This is an area that my organization, Free the Slaves, knows well. I lived in Niger and Free the Slaves currently has anti-slavery programs in Ghana and Senegal. While unsafe migration does lead to slavery, most slavery in this region occurs in the home country and often at or near the communities of those enslaved. Slavery does not require travel.
The men who ended up being captured and sold in Libya were migrating because the conditions in their home communities are so desperate that risky behaviors seem warranted.
Punishing the slave traders and repatriating the victims, while needed, will not change the objective reality that drives migration. Moreover, the families, friends and neighbors in those communities are in a similar situation. That’s why it’s important to think of slavery as an ill befalling vulnerable communities, rather than individuals.
Slavery stems from vulnerability. Slave traders and slaveholders most often target the hamlets, villages and neighborhoods that are impoverished, marginalized and stigmatized.
Slavery at home
In the vulnerable communities of West Africa, slavery will manifest in many ways: Some people will be caught up in unsafe international migration, like those found in Libya. However, most slaves are found in the domestic economy.
In Mali, slavery is found in artisanal gold mines, agriculture, transportation, begging and sex trafficking.
In Ghana, sex trafficking, fishing and portering (carrying loads for market vendors and shoppers) are among the more common arenas for slavery.
So focusing on only one form of slavery after the victim is far from home won’t really make much of a difference since multiple forms of slavery may be found in the same village.
Strategy for resistance
What’s needed is to address the root causes. Poverty alone does not explain slavery. Roughly 700 million people meet the threshold of extreme poverty (less than $1.90 per day of income); the number of slaves is estimated to be 40 million. What distinguishes these 40 million from the other 700 million very poor? Slavery usually occurs when poverty is compounded by specific risk factors.
These include an inability to assert basic human rights, lack of access to essential social and economic services (especially schools, health care and credit); the failure of the rule of law; and, an absence of services for slavery survivors that leads to re-enslavement.
Our experience and independent evaluations offer compelling evidence that a comprehensive approach addressing root causes yields sustained community resistance to slavery.
Here are the keys to eradicating slavery: strengthen local organizations that protect vulnerable communities; educate vulnerable communities so they know and can assert their rights; mobilize communities by organizing anti-slavery committees that serve as a protective “neighborhood watch” against human traffickers; increase access to essential services, especially schools, basic health care and credit; strengthen laws and law enforcement; and ensure that slavery survivors receive appropriate services care so they are not re-enslaved.
The United Nations has called for an end to slavery by 2030. It has taken almost 20 years of trial and error to uncover the pathway to slavery eradication. Because of the work of many people, especially slavery survivors that transformed their trauma into leadership, moral indignation at the appalling images of slavery can find outlet in practical action.
There is well-grounded reason to be optimistic that very significant progress can be achieved through a long-term, strategic and evidence-based campaign against slavery. We have before us the possibility of a 21st century abolitionist movement that will, at long last, bring an end to this ancient scourge.
Maurice I. Middleberg is executive director of Free the Slaves. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.