Published on February 24, 2014 | by Emma Francis


Slavery in the modern world

Slavery is the second largest organised crime in the world today, with as few as one to two per cent of victims being rescued. [Flickr: Caroline Glick via Oxfam]

Slavery is not a thing of the past. Emma Francis investigates how there are more slaves in the world today than ever before and how we can help make people aware of the shocking issue.

January’s hard-hitting film 12 Years a Slave showed the life of Solomon Northup as he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He faced the brutal hand of the slave owners and was forced daily into manual labour, stripped of his identity and separated from his family.

As the film ends, you come back to reality with a sense of relief that it is not a part of your life – but as director Steve McQueen highlighted in his BAFTA acceptance speech for the film last Sunday: “There are 21 million people in slavery as we sit here. I just hope that 150 years from now, our ambivalence will not allow another filmmaker to make this film.”

In 2014, there is actually an estimated 30 million victims worldwide of modern-day slavery, based on reports dating between 2012 and this year; only one per cent of them will ever see freedom. There are more slaves in the world today than at any other point in human history.


The A21 Campaign is a non-governmental organisation that fights to abolish human trafficking and slavery. Although the figures are overwhelming, they believe that every person they can help bring freedom to is making a significant difference.

The UK managing director of the A21 campaign, Charlie Blythe, told ALN how she felt after seeing 12 Years a Slave: “As I was watching it I thought it’s great that people are watching this, but I hope they don’t think it’s a thing of the past by any means. Because, if anything, I’ve heard more harrowing cases than I’ve seen on that film.

“I do think that, because it’s back in the 1840s, it’s going to be hard for an every day person to relate to, they may think that doesn’t happen now but actually, it totally does.”

In history books we see many accounts similar to the life of Solomon Northup, but manual labour is not the only type of slavery.

“As the demand increases, as people realise that this generates ridiculous amounts of money, we’ve become more creative in how we can use people as commodities and more creative as to how we keep these slaves as victims,” explains Blythe.

“Although forced labour still happens today, there are other forms of slavery – sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, organ harvesting. The difference today is that it’s more unseen. It’s happening on our doorsteps and we don’t notice it.

“You could walk past a girl that might be being sexually exploited and pimped out behind doors, that has travelled in from Nigeria, and you would never know. She may have been coerced or deceived and she might be being brainwashed and that’s how she’s controlled to stay in that situation.”


The number of people estimated to be in slavery in the world today is staggering; it is the second largest organised crime.

“The figure a lot of people know is 27 million but the slavery index that got published at the end of 2012 said 30 million – you’re never going to know how many slaves are in the world today because it’s a hidden crime,” says Blythe. “It really can happen to anyone.”

The average age of a trafficking victim is 12 years old and the majority are women and children, but Blythe explains that the one thing all victims have in common is vulnerability.

“800,000 people are estimated to be trafficked, one in eight of those are in Europe and 10,000 of those are in the UK.” Charlie Blythe

“We all know people that are vulnerable for so many different reasons; homelessness, substance misuse, maybe not speaking the language of the country you’re in, wanting to find a better job somewhere, wanting educational opportunities so you trust someone. There are so many different reasons why people are trafficked and it all comes down to vulnerability.”

There are some countries where the issue of modern-day slavery is more common, such as Nigeria, Albania and Romania but the truth is, it happens everywhere, even in the UK.

“800,000 people are estimated to be trafficked, one in eight of those are in Europe and 10,000 of those are in the UK. That’s an estimation so you’ll never know exactly,” says Blythe.


In 2012, a British girl, Sophie Hayes, revealed that she had been trafficked by her boyfriend to Italy at the age of 18 where she was forced into prostitution, beaten at gunpoint and threatened that her brother would be killed if she disobeyed. The Sophie Hayes Foundation says: “Sophie brings to life that this could happen to anyone, Sophie could be your sister, your daughter, your friend. Sophie could be just like you.”

The A21 campaign works in four main areas: prevention, protection, prosecution and partnerships. It works on educating people and letting the public know the severity of what is happening, not just in Britain, but also worldwide.

Blythe explains the campaign works with victims of trafficking and their own prosecution team; A21 also owns safe houses for the victims who help their campaign.

“We do partnerships because we believe working together is how we will tackle this problem,” explains Blythe. “It’s estimated that only one to two per cent of victims are ever rescued, so there’s 98-99 per cent

that are never rescued. These are harrowing statistics, but at the A21 campaign we break that down so every one person that we manage to rescue – that’s one life.”

Blythe personally visits students and explains the situation to them, as they make up a percentage of the victims, and she believes their generation “are going to help abolish this injustice”. She also encourages students to use their talents to bring awareness to the public and promote A21.

“Maybe you’re doing a fashion degree and you put on a fashion show that you can use to make people aware of human trafficking. You want to move people in to action and that can be done in many ways. If you can spread awareness by telling people the signs of trafficking, how people are being trafficked, who it happens to, then people will be more savvy to what is going on,” adds Blythe.


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