(CNN) — From the pandemic to the climate crisis, the catastrophes of the past five years have upended everyday life, and a new report shows that in many countries the resulting economic uncertainty has pushed millions of people into modern-day slavery.
An estimated 50 million people around the world are victims of forced marriage and forced labour, a 25% increase from the last estimate in 2016, according to a new report released on Monday by the International Labor Organization (ILO), Walk Free and the International Organization for Migration ( IOM).
Modern slavery refers to forced labor and forced marriage when someone is unable to refuse to comply or escape due to threats, violence and deception. The researchers conducted a series of surveys in more than 180 countries to obtain their results.
According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic, armed conflict and the climate crisis have caused “unprecedented disruptions” to employment and education, leading to increased poverty, dangerous migration and gender-based violence, all risks of modern slavery.
However, ILO director-general Guy Ryder said “nothing can justify the continuation of this fundamental abuse of human rights”.
“We know what needs to be done and we know it can be done. Effective national policies and regulations are essential. But governments cannot do it alone,” he said.
The report states that better laws, stronger legal protections and more support for women, girls and vulnerable people could significantly reduce or one day end modern slavery.
Vulnerable women and girls
An estimated 22 million people live in forced marriage, according to the report, a 43 percent increase from 2016 figures.
More than two-thirds of those forced into marriage are women and girls, according to the report, putting them at greater risk of sexual exploitation and violence.
The Asia-Pacific region has more people in forced marriages, but when population size is taken into account, the researchers found that forced marriages are more prevalent in Arab countries.
Covid-19 has “exacerbated the underlying drivers of all forms of modern slavery, including forced marriage,” according to the report.
In some countries, the lockdown has prevented workers from earning money, and with schools closed, some families have sent their children to work to help put food on the table.
India’s capital Delhi suffered one of the world’s longest school closures due to the pandemic, forcing more than 4 million children out of classrooms for more than 600 days.
According to Shaheen Mistry, founder of the nonprofit Teach For India, about 10 percent of children in the city’s public schools have dropped out because of the pandemic and its economic impact on the poorest families.
“Child marriage has increased, violence against children has increased, nutrition is a huge issue as many of our children depend on school meals,” Mistry told CNN in January.
And the data released in Monday’s report may not show the full picture.
“Because the data only partially reflect the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the estimates presented in this report are likely to underestimate the full scale of the impact of the pandemic,” he noted.
Children and forced labour
Forced labor has increased by 11 percent to 28 million people since 2016, and nearly one in eight people in the condition is a minor, giving the issue “particular urgency,” according to the report.
More than half of children work in the commercial sex exploitation sector, which includes human trafficking, where the main form of forced labor is sexual services, it added.
“Qualitative reports indicate that children may be subjected to serious forms of coercion and abuse, such as abduction, drug addiction, detention, fraud and manipulation through debt,” according to the report. “Some of the worst abuses occur in situations of armed conflict.”
About 86 percent of forced labor cases occur in private sector industries such as manufacturing, construction and agriculture, with Asia and the Pacific accounting for more than half of the global total, according to the report.
The research showed gender differences when it comes to forced labour, including the industries that employ them and the nature of the coercion.
Women forced to work are much more likely than men to do housework, while men are more likely to work in the construction sector, according to the report.
While women are more likely to be forced into forced labor through abuse and lack of pay, men are more likely to face threats of violence and economic sanctions, it added.