“Today there are…45.8 million slaves world-wide.” Wall Street Journal editorial
“The Walk Free Foundation estimates there are some 58,000 slaves in the U.S., many of them Latino illegal immigrants who fall victim to human traffickers, as well as domestic workers who arrive legally but end up enslaved by their employers or those who get trapped in the sex trade.” Ibid
Slaves in the American South numbered four million in 1860, the last time the U.S. Census Bureau counted the victims of the “peculiar institution” before it was abolished. Today there are 18.4 million slaves in India alone and 45.8 million world-wide. The modern slave trade is as cruel as its 19th-century forerunner—and much larger than previously thought.
That’s according to the Walk Free Foundation, founded by Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest, which publishes a Global Slavery Index to measure the scale and prevalence of modern slavery. This year’s index was compiled using a rigorous methodology involving in-person interviews with 42,000 respondents in 53 languages and 25 countries.
The report defines a slave as someone who is held against his or her will or otherwise forced to work through violence or threats of violence or abuse of authority. Modern-day slaves range from Burmese men working on Thai shrimp boats and punished with stingray tails, to Yazidi girls captured for sex slavery by Islamic State in Iraq, to Uzbek citizens forced by their government to pick cotton in harvest season, to North Koreans toiling in Kim Jong Un’s vast gulag.
How someone ends up enslaved varies by country and region, but dictatorship and slavery tend to go together. In some of the world’s least-free nations, governments do the enslaving, including China’s “re-education through labor” camps, which continue to operate despite Beijing’s claim to have formally abolished them in 2014.
Elsewhere, ancient institutions of bondage—such as debt-slavery in India and across much of Asia and Mauritania’s slave caste—persist due to weak rule of law. Civil wars and jihadist violence across Africa and the Middle East have been a boon to the trade, displacing millions and pushing new victims into the arms of ruthless human traffickers.
The Walk Free Foundation combined its interview data with analysis of risk factors, such as stability and rule of law, that determine the likelihood of slavery in a given country. It concluded that there are 10 million more enslaved persons world-wide than previously believed.
India has the highest absolute number of slaves, followed by China (3.4 million) and Pakistan (2.1 million). More than half of all enslaved persons world-wide live in these three countries. The nearby table shows the top 10 offenders relative to population size, starting with North Korea (4.4% of the population enslaved), Uzbekistan (4%) and Cambodia (1.6%).