Slavery in the 21st century

The number of people in situations of modern slavery has increased over the past five years, according to the latest report published by the International Labor Organization (ILO), Walk Free and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In 2021, there were 50 million people in modern slavery worldwide, 10 million more than in the 2016 report.

When we talk about modern slavery, we mean two forms of coercion: forced labor, which forces people to work against their will, and forced marriage, which involves cohabitation in a marriage without the consent of the person concerned.

Both concepts refer to situations of exploitation that the subject cannot reject or leave because of threats, violence, fraud, abuse of power or other forms of coercion.

The situation has worsened due to the crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic, various armed conflicts or climate change. These phenomena have led to an increase in poverty and forced migration in conditions of insecurity, as well as reports of gender-based violence, contributing to an increase in the risk of all forms of modern slavery.

According to the ILO report, the people most affected by modern slavery are those who were already in a vulnerable situation. For example, victims of poverty and social exclusion, such as migrant workers, and people subject to discrimination, such as women.

Forced labor

Forced labor has increased in recent years, and according to 2021 estimates, 27.6 million people were in this vulnerable situation. The most affected population groups are women and girls, who account for 11.8 million of the total number of people subjected to forced labour.

Minors are the other group most affected: millions of boys and girls stop going to school to work. The ILO estimates that around 3.31 million children are victims of forced labour, but this may only be the tip of the iceberg due to the difficulties in collecting data in this regard.

The majority of forced labor is concentrated in the private sector, and no region of the world is free from it. This type of modern slavery is present in many countries regardless of their level of wealth. For example, more than half of forced labor takes place in upper-middle-income or high-income countries.

forced marriage

Forced marriage is a highly gendered practice, meaning that the majority of people forced into marriage are women and girls. This situation has also increased in recent years: 22 million people lived in conditions of forced marriage in 2021.

Forced marriages occur all over the world; however, this practice is closely related to entrenched patriarchal attitudes and practices and is highly dependent on context, culture and religion. Although two-thirds of forced marriages occur in Asia and the Pacific, given the size of the regional population, the prevalence is higher in Arab countries, with 4.8 people per 1,000 in a forced marriage situation.

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Family members are primarily responsible for the majority of forced marriages. According to the ILO report, most of the people in this situation were forced into marriage by their parents or other relatives.

Various formulas are used to force people to marry without their consent, such as emotional blackmail, threats of estrangement from family members, or physical or sexual violence.

End modern slavery

According to the ILO report, the international community must play its part and use all necessary resources to end modern slavery. This requires the cooperation of national governments, but also of international organizations, business and civil society.

At the same time, the report proposes a series of recommended measures. For example, respecting the freedoms and rights of workers, committing to fair and ethical employment, expanding social protection and promoting greater support for women, girls and vulnerable people, among others.

Through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the international community has committed to ending modern child slavery by 2025 and universally by 2030.

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