I prayed for mercy, but my prayer was only answered with imprecations and with stripes… My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!"

-Solomon Northrup, 1853, writer of 12 Years a Slave


What does the word ‘slavery’ mean to you?

For many, it conjures up images of the brutal trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, during which millions of Africans were forcibly transported to work on plantations in the Americas. The famous narratives of Solomon Northrup, Frederick Douglass and others have helped to keep alive the memory of what is often viewed as an exceptionally horrific practice from a more primitive and barbaric age.

However, despite common belief, far from being ‘abolished’ in the 19th century, slavery has never truly gone away.

Although it may have been outlawed in most countries, as many as 40 million people are believed to be living in slavery across the world right now.


Is it ‘modern’ or ‘slavery’?

New laws and corporate policies designed to tackle ‘modern slavery’ have helped to raise people’s awareness of the problem, but the language used to describe it is still contested.

Some argue that this umbrella term includes abuses that are not uniquely ‘modern’, and nor are they what might traditionally be thought of as ‘slavery’; debt bondage, servitude, compelled relocation, sexual exploitation and coerced labour are far from recent innovations, while many don’t realise that forced marriage, which accounts for nearly 40% of the estimated cases, is also included in the overall definition.

Nevertheless, some of these dehumanising practices are proliferating in new forms in our modern world, and they are classified together because they share a number of common features, most notably a loss of liberty that is usually enforced by some kind of physical or psychological threat.


Who does it affect?

The shadow cast by modern slavery reaches much further than many realise, but it disproportionally affects certain people.

Women account for the vast majority of those subjected to forced marriage, domestic servitude and sex trafficking, for example, while children are thought to make up a quarter of all of the total victims.

Global events also help the criminal practices behind slavery to flourish, recent cases including the trafficking of displaced people from Syria, slaves being used to mine ‘blood diamonds’ in Sierra Leone, organ harvesting in India, and children used in Thai brothels or as soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But modern slavery is not just confined to the developing world - it also occurs much closer to home.

In 2015, the Home Office estimated that 10,000 - 13,000 people were in such conditions in the United Kingdom, although the National Crime Agency estimated that the true figure was likely to be in the ‘tens of thousands’.


Hidden in plain sight

Whether you realise it or not, modern slavery is probably happening somewhere close to you. It is a crime that is often described as ‘hiding in plain sight’, because it takes on many different forms and is seldom easy to spot.

Traits to look out for include someone who has their movement controlled, lives in poor conditions, works long hours for little or no pay, is wary of authority figures, seldom socialises with others around them, has a representative speaking for them and/or shows signs of physical or mental abuse.

While one or more of these does not necessarily mean someone is a necessarily a victim, they are among the twenty general indicators that could suggest someone is being affected by modern slavery.


Tackling the problem

Over the course of the last century there have been a number of major international initiatives to try to tackle slavery, such as the League of Nations’ Temporary Slavery Commission of 1925, but it has only been in the last two decades that a more widespread and concerted global effort has been spearheaded.

The United Nation’s Palermo Protocol 1 (2000), for example, not only defined trafficking and required countries to enact laws against it, but it also encouraged support for those affected by it. This led to the 2005 European Convention on Action Against Trafficking of Human Beings, which prompted the British government to develop a number of action plans leading to the 2011 Human Trafficking Strategy and the 2015 Modern Slavery Act.

Another key development was the creation of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in 2009, a government-funded framework that provided a ‘reflection and recovery’ scheme for victims over a minimum of 45 days. The Salvation Army was one of the main stakeholders involved at the time, and it is still responsible for running a service that assisted over 10,000 survivors of slavery in 2020 alone.


What do we do?

Across the UK, we provide specialist support and accommodation to victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, and their dependants. Our dedicated casework teams provide safe accommodation, develop support plans and facilitate access to key services in order to empower clients as they recover from trauma. Our aim is to reduce the risk of re-trafficking and help the survivors to move onto a positive new chapter in their lives.

We have grown hugely in the past five years as we seek to meet the growing needs of some of the most vulnerable people in society, including survivors of slavery, refugees and asylum seekers.


What can you do to help?

  • Be aware: How informed are you about the problems of modern slavery both in the UK or worldwide? Educate yourself on the subject and learn the signs - you could end up saving someone's life.
  • Change your habits: How much do you actually know about the supply chains involved in the products you buy? Try to avoid unintentionally supporting modern slavery by finding out more about the firms you use. You are not powerless in this global issues - you can ‘vote with your feet’ by shopping with ethical businesses.
  • Support charities: Can you support the most vulnerable people in your community? There are many great charities providing invaluable services to those who need it most. You could volunteer your time with them, advocate for them by sharing on social media or donate to help them provide their services. Why not commit to supporting Migrant Help either on a monthly basis or with a one-off donation?