Ask anyone for their opinion on the slave trade and most will tell you that it was abolished nearly 200 years ago. That, thanks to the heroic efforts of campaigners like William Wilberforce, today’s society lives free of this evil scourge and people are largely masters of their own destinies.
It might surprise you, therefore, to learn that across the world today more than 27 million people are living in slavery, and human trafficking, or people smuggling, has become one of the most profitable forms of organised crime, up there with arms and drugs dealing.
And I know you're now thinking I must be talking about impoverished
people groups and war-torn or under-developed nations. Well, those sectors of society are certainly extremely vulnerable, but the truth is that, according to the United Nations, every single country on the planet is affected in some way by human trafficking.
Some nations are targeted as a source for slaves, some are destinations, others serve as a crossroads, which victims transit through. Some countries figure in all three roles.
The networks controlling this modern-day slavery are vast and menacing. They operate in the shadows and every year they smuggle hundreds of thousands of victims across international borders and into a life of cruelty and bondage.
Forget those old images of shackles and chains, modern-day slavery takes many forms. It includes women and children being kidnapped and forced into prostitution, it encompasses forced labour in sweatshops and factories, it involves the tragedy of child soldiers made to fight an adult war and it extends to domestic helpers living in the unpaid service of ruthless and violent households. It may shock you to know that Europe and North America are major trafficking destinations.
Such is the reach of this crime, that the United Nations this year produced a global report examining every country's efforts in tackling it. Some are doing better than others. Many have developed special government and police task forces to focus on the problem and have welcomed the help of charities and independent organisations in rescuing and supporting victims.
Others treat the victims as criminals, labelling them illegal immigrants and charging them with crimes like prostitution. Often, the public imagine these victims have chosen their own path in life, we enjoy such freedom that it’s hard for us to believe and accept that slavery exists. But would a 10 or 12-year-old girl really choose a life in the sex trade? Would a mother really cut off ties with her family to toil in a sweatshop earning a pittance – wages which are often taken straight back by her employer as payment towards some imaginary debt?
But there is some good news in all this. The United Nations considers that
raising public awareness about human trafficking is its number one weapon in fighting this escalating crime. And that's why we're telling you about it today.
Don’t be fooled, this does happen in our own backyards, but by increasing our knowledge about it, we can be the key which sets these prisoners free.
The information we've shared here today only scratches the surface. If you want to know more, there are stacks of websites you can visit. Some of the leading ones are:
The scale of this problem can feel overwhelming, but don’t be discouraged. If our heightened awareness ultimately keeps just one vulnerable person safe, it will have been worth it.