Ask anyone — slavery is illegal. Every country has passed laws stating that it is unlawful to own another human being and to exercise total control over that person’s life, work, and family. Therefore, it is shocking to discover that slavery persists in many countries around the world, including the United States. Over 27 million men, women, and children are held in slavery at this moment; whether through debt bondage in South Asia or the U.S., forced child soldiering in Central Africa, contract slavery in Brazil, classical “chattel” slavery in North Africa, or sex slavery in Thailand. In the U.S. alone, nearly 200,000 people live in slavery, and an additional 17,500 are trafficked across the border every year. Some of the most horrific stories come from the sex trafficking industry, where an estimated 2 million children are raped daily by paying customers. These women and children are typically tricked, coerced, or outright abducted into this growing criminal enterprise. The enslavement of people across the world generates almost $32 billion per year, approaching the revenues from the drug and arms trades, and rapidly becoming the most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world.
Modern and historical slavery share the characteristics of control and violence on the part of the slave-holder over the person in bondage, and a lack of payment for work performed. However, modern slavery also differs in significant ways from the slavery of the past. People seeking to enslave others find that it is relatively simple to do so as they discover an apparently limitless supply of victims who are vulnerable to enslavement. Governmental corruption largely contributes to placing victims in this state, which is furthered by a lack of social capital, poverty, education, and law enforcement. Slaves are also cheaper than ever before, and young girls and boys can be purchased for $800 to $2,000 (in contrast, a typical field slave during the height of the African slave trade sold for the modern equivalent of $50,000 to $100,000). In addition, instead of race being the determining factor of enslavement, modern slavery is linked to differences in economic and social power. These discrepancies may be related to race in one country, but to gender, caste, age, or religion in another.
The United States is not immune to the problems of modern slavery. Each year, 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the U.S. Unfortunately, law enforcement, aid and social service workers, and the medical community are often not aware of human trafficking and slavery. This often results in the victims being treated as criminals themselves. Slavery is also typically considered a federal or immigration problem, which minimizes the attention it gets from local law enforcement.
As people of a risen Christ, who in his own words came to “set the oppressed free,” it is impossible for us to stay quiet on this issue any longer. There are thousands of people around the world working to end slavery. We invite you to attend the Liberation! Conference on Modern Slavery happening September 21 in Delaware, Ohio, where you can learn more about modern slavery and how you, your church or organization, and community can become engaged to stop it. Please visit www.liberationconference.com to learn more.
Jeremy Scott is a seminarian at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.