Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Tragic Paradox: Modern Day Slavery of International Migrants



Time to read

5 Minutes

Guest post by Rebecca Yemo. Rebecca is a PhD student of the Global Governance and Human Security program at UMass Boston. Her research interests include human rights compliance and enforcement mechanisms. Before beginning this program, she worked as a Project Development and Implementation Manager with Africa Digital Rights Hub. You can connect with her via LinkedIn.

The Statue of Liberation from Slavery, Goree Island-Senegal (Photo: Rebecca Yemo)


My chores seem unending… After 20 hours I am still not done. There’s no food on my plate for dinner, so I scavenge through the trash. I try to call the job agency, but the woman who now owns me has locked the telephone…I can feel the burning on my cheeks as she slaps me…Grasping me by the hair, she bangs my head into the wall and throws me to the floor. She kicks me and hits me with a broom. If I scream or fight back, she will kill me. So I bite my lips to bear the pain and then I pass out. This is my daily routine, the life of a slave.-Beatrice Fernando(victim of forced labor)

Modern-day slavery is the subjugation of individuals into forced marriages, forced labour exploitation, forced sexual exploitation, and state-imposed forced labour. Globally, there are about 40 million victims of modern-day slavery,  50% of  whom  are victims of forced labour and forced sexual exploitation, and one out of every four of them are exploited outside their respective countries of origin. On this basis, it can be inferred that roughly 12 million international migrants are living in slavery; more than the entire population of countries like Greece, Togo, Portugal among others. Furthermore, given that women and girls make up over 70% of modern-day slaves, it therefore, comes as little surprise that the majority of international migrants who find themselves in forced labour and forced sexual exploitation are women; thus revealing the highly gendered pattern of this phenomenon. Additionally, while most originate from East Asia, they are mainly exploited in the Middle East.

How the Quest for Human Security Heightens Human Insecurity

According to the 1994 Human Development Report human security is the freedom from fear and freedom from want”. The report further groups the threats to human security under seven key categories, ranging from economic to personal security. International migrants who end up as victims of slavery are unable to enjoy economic security because, in spite of their hard work, they are not assured of a basic income. Some receive no remuneration for their work and those who do, receive paltry sums not commensurate to their work. Personal and health security is also compromised when migrants are subjected to sexual exploitation, physical abuse, working long hours without breaks, psychological and verbal abuse, as well as other forms of harm that threaten their lives. The tragic paradox is that migrants who end up becoming modern-day slaves are people who are typically fleeing situations that threaten their human security in the first place. While seeking ‘freedom from fear and freedom from want’, international migrants end up in situations that heighten their fears and make them even worse off than before. The story of Luiza from Uzbekistan is one of such scenarios. Her hopes of finding a job in Kyrgyzstan were dashed when she was forced into prostitution. In her own words, “We were to be sex slaves and do whatever the clients wanted”.

Modern-Day Slavery and Transatlantic Slavery-Different times, Same Story

Modern-day slavery of international migrants can be likened to the Africa transatlantic slavery although they occurred at different times and under different circumstances. First, both cases involve the involuntary movement of people across borders. Additionally, the way that some migrants are crammed into boats bears a striking resemblance to how transatlantic slaves were shipped off to other countries. In both cases, many die before reaching their respective destinations. Another primary similarity is the inhumane treatment meted out to both categories of slaves. Transatlantic slaves were beaten, starved, raped, subjected to situations of indignity, uprooted from their homes, and restricted from returning. Modern-day international migrant slaves experience these same forms of cruelty. For instance, 15-year-old Adenike from West Africa was repeatedly raped, abused, and coerced into working as a prostitute. This went on until her freedom was secured by her father. It is important to acknowledge that modern day slavery is inherently linked to racism. Racial discrimination and racist ideology play a role in determining how migrants are treated. For instance, in Lebanon, dark skinned migrants are at a greater risk of becoming victims of modern-day slavery than their light skinned counterparts. Arguably, racism has been critical in fuelling the spread of modern day slavery just as it did during the transatlantic slavery. The Slavery Convention of 1926, the Supplementary Convention of 1956 and other legal instruments have been designed to prohibit slavery. Yet, it is alarming to note that only 99 of the 193 states in the United Nations, are parties to the Slavery Convention. Racism aside, the failure of sweeping ratification of the convention by most states, could also explain the widespread incidence of modern-day slavery that international migrants are subjected to.  

What can be done?

The complexity of modern-day slavery means that it requires multiple approaches to be effectively addressed. To begin with, recruitment agencies for overseas employment are classified as one of the most critical sites where migrants are likely to be exploited. Some of these agencies are not adequately regulated within the countries where they operate, hence there is no accountability to a higher authority for the migrants that they transport across borders. Efficient oversight of these agencies could weed out the illegal ones and encourage legitimate ones to be even more cautious and responsible for the lives of the people that come to them in hopes of bettering their lives. For instance, Indonesia has modified its legislations to further regulate private recruitment agencies and this has yielded some progress.

Finally, to further protect people from becoming victims of modern-day slavery, states that are yet to do so must sign and fast track the ratification process of the Slavery Convention. Once these steps have been taken, there is a greater chance that compliance with the law will be improved because the convention will add a stronger level of prohibition of acts of modern-day slavery. Additionally, increased ratification will demonstrate that there is a broader global consensus that this is an issue worthy of addressing both nationally and globally.

Final Thoughts

The pervasiveness of slavery after more than 90 years since the establishment of the 1926 Slavery Convention is an indictment of who we are as a society. We are no better than the slave masters and slave traders of the past if we cannot collectively work towards an end to this inhumane and degrading act. The quest for human security that international migrants embark on by crossing the borders of their home countries arguably should not result in human insecurity. Appropriate measures such as stronger oversight of recruitment agencies and the increased number of signatures and ratifications of the Slavery Convention could play a role in prohibiting the modern-day slavery of international migrants and by so doing ensuring that the economic, personal, and health security of this population is adequately safeguarded.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Yemo, R. (2021). The Tragic Paradox: Modern Day Slavery of International Migrants. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/02/tragic-paradox [date]

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