World

How U.S. Invasions and War Have Exacerbated Slavery in 3 Countries

Short-sighted wars have destabilized regions, creating fertile ground for illegal slavers.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Lukasz Z

It’s a scary thing, just how much of our foreign policy is built on simple, almost folksy stories. The good guys vs. bad guys narrative used to sell America’s wars and interventionism was well-worn long before our most recent entry into Iraq, and it has grown increasingly threadbare after 15 years of war. Between 2001 and 2011, America launched strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, where plans (kill leaders, bask in praise, leave as heroes) remained the same though the players differed. Instead, our myopic grandiosity and lack of post-interventionist planning helped plunge those places into chaos and bloody warfare far deadlier than before we arrived. “Modern forms of slavery prosper in these environments,” according to the human rights organization Walk Free, which it says is a consequence of festering “conflict, corruption, displacement, discrimination and inequality.”

The most compelling evidence for this lies in the tragic reality of numbers. According to Walk Free’s 2016 Global Slavery Index, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya rank near the top of the list, with hundreds of thousands of citizens living in some form of slavery, including “human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, and the sale and exploitation of children.” In total, Walk Free—which interviewed more than 42,000 people in 53 different languages for this year’s survey—estimates there are a staggering 45.8 million people living under such harrowing conditions in 167 countries around the world.

The countries in the top five slots based on “estimated prevalence of modern slavery by the proportion of their population” are North Korea, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, India and Qatar. They rank just ahead of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, along with several nations including South Sudan, Syria and Pakistan, which all sit at number six on the list. In all three countries, the number of those enslaved represents approximately 1.13 percent the population, with some 403,800 people in Iraq, 367,600 in Afghanistan, and 70,900 in Libya trapped in systems of slavery. Years after America’s forces entered those countries proclaiming themselves liberators, the destabilizing effects of war, including “the brutal rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State,” have contributed to upheaval that has left incredible numbers of civilians and migrants in bondage.

“The 2016 Global Slavery Index has been prepared in the context of unprecedented mass movements of men, women and children, fleeing the horrors of protracted conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Libya,” study authors write. “The scale of the distress migration we have witnessed is hard to comprehend. In 2015–2016, the number of displaced people is expected to exceed 60 million. This is the equivalent of the entire population of Italy gathering what they can carry on their backs, and fleeing from their homes under threat of death, or worse."

In terms of raw numbers, India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan—nations “that produce consumer goods for markets in Western Europe, Japan, North America and Australia”—have the highest numbers of people living in slavery, with approximately 58 percent of the global enslaved total living in those nations. The figures for those nations are astounding: top spot holder India has approximately 18.4 million people living in slavery. It’s worthwhile, perhaps, to note that Walk Free notes that slavery is part of the human condition, present in every country and region. The U.S. State Department recognizes multiple forms of forced labor and trafficking as forms of modern slavery, but doesn’t count prison labor, though it is often tantamount to slavery.

While the human cost of slavery is astounding, the devastating consequences extend beyond those, leaving an indelible impact on the environment.

“Slavery, brutality, and environmental destruction feed into each other,” the organization writes in its report. “Refugees fleeing devastated environments that can no longer support them are caught up and enslaved, then forced to carry out even more destruction...This deadly, triangular trade stretches far beyond the Congo, across the world to other threatened villages and forests, and all the way to the rich countries of Europe and North America. It is a trade cycle based on armed conflict that grinds up the natural world and crushes human beings to churn out commodities like minerals for electronics, shrimp and fish, gold, cotton and clothing, iron and steel.”

The group notes that a little less than 50 percent of all illegal deforestation is carried out by slaves, and that criminal slaveholders are behind some 2.54 billion tons of CO2 which are released into the atmosphere each year. “Put another way,” the organization points out, “slaves are being forced to produce more greenhouse gases than any country in the world except China and the United States (the two largest polluters).”

The UN has previously pegged the illegal profits made from modern slavery at $150 billion globally, but that number is very likely an underestimate. Walk Free notes that exact figures for slavery around the group can be incredibly difficult to pin down; the shadowy figures go to great lengths to obscure their crimes. In fact, since the group’s 2014 report, the number of global enslaved has increased by 10 million.

Reuters notes that Andrew Forrest, the billionaire behind Walk Free, attributes the increase to better data collection, though he acknowledged concerns about “global displacement and migration” as contributors. All in all, Forrest said the report is "a straight-up call to action for leaders” to do everything in their power to end slavery around the world.

“In few other spheres is the need for courageous and committed leadership so critical,” Forrest writes in an open letter contained in the report. “Personally, I unashamedly use business to help end slavery and I ask every chairman and chief executive to join me. Organzations that don’t actively [root out] for forced labor within their supply chains are standing on a burning platform. These leaders, like all of us need support and empowerment to make major change. This is where governments can play a leading role.”

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Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.