Does Slavery Still Exist? 4 Places Where It Sadly Does

We often think of slavery as a horrific practice from years past. Yet, here we look at countries and cultures still practicing modern slavery in the modern age.

Jul 20, 2023By Jessie-Lee Smith, BSc Life Sciences, BA Int'l Studies History & Politics
modern slavery places


Modern slavery is not a common topic in western media. Moreover, It is not uncommon for images of plantations and trans-Atlantic slave ships to immediately crop up in the mind’s eye when thinking about slavery. However, slavery practices are much older than many realize. For example, evidence suggests that slavery dates back centuries to the Neolithic Revolution and the invention of agriculture. Furthermore, modern slavery actually did not completely end when Mauritania, the last country in the world to abolish slavery, criminalized it in 2007. This article presents four places where different forms of modern slavery are still active in the 21st century, including chattel slavery in Mauritania, the kafala system in Saudi Arabia, slave markets and trafficking in Libya, and child labor in India.


1. Modern Chattel Slavery in Mauritania

previously enslaved family
A group of formerly enslaved people in Mauritania by Seif Kousmate/ Hans Lucas, via The Guardian


One of the last places on the planet to abolish slavery was the West African country of Mauritania. This country serves as a border between the Arab and Arab-Berber populations of North Africa and the people of West Africa. Unfortunately, while Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 and criminalized it twice in 2007 and 2015, modern slavery still exists in many forms all over the country.


Since its criminalization, only a handful of enslavers have been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. Slavery holds sentences of between 10 and 20 years in Mauritania, and while said to be some of the toughest ever for the crime in the country, the vast majority of cases and persecutors do not make it to court.


Slavery in Mauritania takes the form of chattel slavery, in which people are considered legal property and can be bought, sold, and owned. Here, enslaved people are maintained on a hereditary basis, where their children are also considered the property of the enslavers. As a result, enslavers, who are predominantly Arab-Berbers or Arabs, commonly force enslaved people to do domestic chores, herd animals, and farmlands. Sadly, enslaved people in Mauritania are also often subjected to sexual and physical abuse by their masters, sometimes with children fathered by enslavers remaining enslaved throughout their lives.


Mauritania slave protest.jpg
Mauritanians protesting slavery, 2015, via Justice Info

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Today, many activist organizations, many of which are run by formerly enslaved people, such as Initiative for Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, Al’Hor, and SOS Esclaves, continue to fight for more vigorous prosecution of enslavers and the freeing of enslaved people. Moreover, global organizations such as the United Nations continue pushing to eradicate the practice. However, activists still argue that more can be done and that world leaders need to take a stronger stance against this egregious violation of human rights.


2. The Kafala System in Saudi Arabia

domestic workers protest the Kafala system
Migrant domestic workers protest to end the Kafala system, 2018, Via The Guardian


Saudi Arabia has long been known for its questionable relationship with western ideals of human rights, such as those laid out in the Geneva Conventions. For example, only since 2017 have women been allowed to access healthcare and education without the consent of a male guardian. Moreover, not until the same year were women allowed to drive cars. However, for years, Saudi Arabia has been scrutinized for another significant human rights issue: modern slavery.


In Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, a legal framework known as the kafala system defines the relationship between migrant workers and their employers. In the kafala system, the government provides individuals or companies sponsorship permits which they use to employ foreign laborers. In turn, this permit puts the hirers in control of the legal status of their employees. Economic growth in Arab Gulf states encouraged the implementation of this system, and many argue that it benefits local businesses and drives development.


saudi arabia kafala sponsorship
A man in Saudi Arabia on a kafala sponsorship works in a construction site, via BBC


Unfortunately, the Kafala system is also known to foster the mistreatment of workers due to a sponsor’s role as overseer. Workers are generally required to get their sponsor’s permission to transfer jobs, end their employment, enter and exit the country, and are often subjected to the daily rules which the sponsors make for them. For example, if a worker leaves their place of employment without permission, their sponsor is legally allowed to terminate their legal status, which can lead to imprisonment or deportation. Due to these conditions, many workers have come forward to describe different types of abuse or inhospitable conditions in which their sponsors force them to live. Alleged abuses include starvation, refusal to terminate a contract, overworking, and imprisonment.


Because of the opportunities for exploitation, many argue that the Kafala system facilitates modern slavery. Because of this, several countries and organizations have taken action to end the system or protect their people from falling into dangerous situations. In 2015, Kenya, for example, suspended the licenses of recruitment agencies that worked to send citizens seeking employment in the Middle East. Other countries whose citizens have been subjected to abuse by the kafala system include the Philippines, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Uganda. Moreover, organizations such as Human Rights Watch continue to push to end the system, leaving vulnerable people looking for a better life in potentially dangerous situations. Despite this, the number of migrant laborers in Saudi Arabia under the kafala system rose significantly in 2022.


3. Detained Migrants in Libya

sunday Iabarot former enslaved person
Sunday Iabarot, who was scarred by his trafficker before being sold to work in a construction site, 2019, via TIME


Over the years, numerous impoverished Central and Western African countries have forced citizens to flee or search elsewhere to support themselves and their communities, and a significant number of these people are forced northward toward Europe. As high numbers of migrants tackle the Niger and Libyan desert in search of better lives across the Mediterranean, a terrible fate faces many. Libya is the main transit point for refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe by sea. However, some never make it across the choppy Mediterranean Sea in boats barely fit for the water, and some, are sold into slavery.


In 2011, the Arab Spring charged across Northern Africa, and leaders such as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya were ousted by those looking to institute liberal and democratic governments. This revolution has since left the predominately Muslim country in a state of disorder, with factions continuing to fight for power and lawlessness increasing across the land. Since then, terrifying tales have made their way into the news about forced labor, slave markets, brandings, and other forms of abuse in Libya. Migrants desperate for better lives in Europe are allegedly being caught and sold for free labor. First-hand accounts and videos presenting the auctioning of African migrants are just some of the ways news of the presence of slavery in Libya makes its way to the international community.


African migrants looking to cross the Mediterranean are generally captured after they cross the Niger-Libyan border in the South of Libya. Many of these migrants are captured by authorities and placed in detention centers. In 2017, estimates had the number of detainees in Libya at around 400,000.


detention center libya
African migrants sleeping in a detention center in Libya by Taha Jawashi, 2017, via TIME


Many allegations from detainees paint Libyan detention centers as inhumane and overrun, and a significant number claimed to have experienced robberies, rape, murder, and torture. Unfortunately, when migrants caught are not placed in detention centers, a potentially worse fate may be in store.


In 2017, many stories and videos came to the attention of international organizations and news outlets about auctions and markets auctioning off African migrant men. Moreover, according to the International Organization for Migration, staff documented shocking events along the migrant routes which make their way through Libya. These events include the illegal detaining and selling of specifically male migrants. According to first-hand accounts, these migrants are often sold to the highest bidder and forced to call their families and ask for ransom or work off their “debt” on construction sites or farmlands.


One primary reason for the increasing vulnerability of African migrants in Libya is the bottleneck created by policies in Italy. In 2016, around 163,000 migrants arrived in Italy from Libya. Their arrival caused a significant backlash, and the European Union trained and equipped Libyan coast guards to intercept migrants as a response. Migrants unable to get into Europe were stranded in Libya and forced into ill-equipped detention centers or left vulnerable to exploitation.


Today, the international community is working to tackle slavery in Libya in several ways. These include the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which works with Libyan authorities to curb illegal detention and forced labor, and numerous international organizations that continue raising awareness and educating migrants about the dangers of crossing the desert.


4. Modern Slavery in India

children work in construction site
Children work on construction site in India by Daniel Berehulak, 2010, via NPR


According to statistics, India has the world’s highest number of enslaved people and ranks fourth in terms of enslaved people as a percentage of the population. While India abolished slavery in 1843, Modern slavery still takes on many forms, including people trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation or organ harvesting and women forced into marriages. However, one of the main concerns for human rights activists and international welfare organizations is the enslavement of children as organized beggars, sex workers, and laborers.


The Award-Winning movie Slumdog Millionaire made the plight of children forced into begging organizations in India widely known. However, many street children in India remain in the servitude of gangs and are often forced to act as couriers, street vendors, and rag pickers. Among these children, the prevalence of alcohol and tobacco addiction is high, and the use of marijuana, opium, and injectable drugs can start as young as nine years old.


Another form of modern slavery in India is using children for labor in many sectors of the economy. Experts consider child labor a form of modern slavery because children are forced to work or are unable to refuse the work. In 2009, government surveys reported that the number of children in India between the ages of 5 and 17 years subject to child labor was around 11 million. However, non-governmental organizations estimate that the number is closer to 40 million. Approximately 70% of these children are forced to work in hazardous conditions for which they receive little to no training. In agricultural work, for example, children are commonly exposed to toxic pesticides, dangerous machinery, and tobacco.


child works in field
A young girl planting saplings with her family in a paddy field, via The Guardian


Global and National concern for the safety of children and the prevalence of child labor as a form of modern slavery has pushed the Indian government and international organizations to implement measures that will curb this violation of human rights. For example, in 2015, India implemented the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act which criminalizes keeping a child in bondage for employment, and in 2009 the Right to Education Act (2009) was implemented, which makes free education for children age 6-14 years mandatory. However, due to extreme poverty, lack of education, and caste systems that limit movement up economic and social systems, many children are still forced to work to provide for their families or under the threat of physical harm.


Around the world in the twenty-first century, many other forms of modern slavery exist. From chattel slavery to the debt bondage faced by over 20 million people trafficked in almost every corner of the globe, modern slavery is clearly of significant concern to human rights organizations, governments, and individuals everywhere. As individuals, raising awareness and promoting education on issues surrounding modern slavery is an important way in which to make a difference.

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By Jessie-Lee SmithBSc Life Sciences, BA Int'l Studies History & PoliticsI am a passionate writer who has spent the last few years working towards writing in multiple disciplines, including liberal arts and the sciences. I have two bachelor's degrees in different fields; BSc in Life Sciences with a focus on Genetics and Zoology from the University of Stellenbosch, and a BA in International Studies with a focus on History and Politics from the University of South Africa. I have spent my working life teaching and writing. I hope to work in the field of science communication, where I can present new scientific research to the public in a way that informs, interests, and inspires them.