UN: 50 million stuck in ‘modern slavery’ worldwide

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Nearly 50 million people lived in some form of modern slavery last year, either through forced labor or forced marriage, an increase of 10 million more people than in 2016, according to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International Organization for Migration. (IOM).

The United Nations released the study this month with the anti-slavery organization Walk Free, finding that nearly 28 million people were in forced labor in 2021 and nearly 22 million in forced marriage, which translates to about 1 in 150 people worldwide.

The UN estimates the rate has risen in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated economic and social issues and widened opportunities for exploitation.

ILO director-general Guy Ryder said in a statement on Monday that “it is shocking that the situation of modern slavery is not improving”.

“Nothing can justify the persistence of this fundamental abuse of human rights,” Ryder said, calling on unions, employers’ organizations and society at large to address the issue. “We know what needs to be done and we know it can be done. Effective national policies and regulations are fundamental.”

“But governments cannot do this alone. International standards provide a sound basis and an across-the-board approach is needed,” Ryder added.

The number of people in forced labor increased by 2.7 million people from 2016 to 2021. Around a third of all people in forced labor are involved in the trade, transport or hospitality sectors and are forced into slavery because wages are delayed , must repay debts or be threatened.

Of the 28 million in forced labor, 3.3 million are children, and more than half of those children are sexually exploited, according to the UN report.

States in Asia and the Pacific (excluding Central Asia) have the highest rate of forced labour, with more than 15 million people in these countries in a form of modern slavery, according to the UN.

The 22 million victims of forced marriage is an increase of 6.6 million from 2016. This number includes 14.9 million girls and women, half of whom were forced into marriage through verbal or physical abuse.

The region with the most forced marriages also includes Asian and Pacific nations, with more than 14 million bound in a form of modern slavery.

However, Arab countries in the Middle East and parts of Africa have the highest per capita rate, with 10 percent of the region’s population in forced marriage, according to the UN.

The anti-slavery organization Walk Free previously released a 2018 report that found North Korea, Libya and Iran ranked among the countries with the most pressing modern slavery problems.

Grace Forrest, the founding director of Walk Free, said on Monday that modern slavery “continues to underpin our global economy”.

“It is a man-made problem, linked both to historical slavery and persistent structural inequality,” Forrest said in a statement. “In an era of complex crises, genuine political will is the key to ending these human rights violations.”

Much of modern slavery revolves around immigration and the exploitation of migrant workers. Migration is likely to increase as climate change creates deep crises around the world and drives refugees to new countries.

The UN report found that 15 percent of all people in forced labor are migrants.

IOM Director-General Antonio Vitorino said in a statement on Monday that the problem “highlights the urgent need to ensure that all migration is safe”.

“All of society must work together to reverse these shocking trends,” Vitorino said.

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