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February 19th, 2009
05:42 PM ET

Modern-day slavery on the rise

Aid agencies say young women are being forced into prostitution across Russia's capital.
Aid agencies say young women are being forced into prostitution across Russia's capital.

Alexandra Poolos
AC360° Editorial Producer

A new United Nations report says that modern-day slavery is on the rise. I have reported on trafficking in the past, and I was stunned to hear that the numbers are going up, despite increasing awareness of the problem. Worse, this is not a problem confined to the developing world. Slaves can be found everywhere, including small towns and big cities across the U.S. I spoke with a victims’ advocate and a journalist, who covers slavery and they introduced me to one young Ukrainian woman, who escaped enslavement in the Midwest.

As a teenager living in Ukraine, Katya had seen plenty of ads and movies promoting awareness about sex trafficking. Still, she never thought she would end up enslaved in an exotic nightclub in the Midwest, held by Russian traffickers who routinely beat and sexually abused her. She was forced to dance twelve hours a day, six days a week for no pay until she escaped a year later.

Katya, who did not give her real name or home city for fear of being tracked down by the mafia ring that enslaved her, says that her desire to seek work and opportunity in the United States is what led her to the traffickers. They promised her a waitressing job, but later took her passport and told her she had to work off a debt of $40,000. “My mom told me not to go because she was afraid something was going to happen to me,” she told me over the phone. “These traffickers brainwashed me. They put me in a hotel, and took my passport and told me I owed them tens of thousands of dollars. We would wake up at 1pm, they would drop us at the Club Cheetah and we would stay there for 12 hours. Six days a week. We were told not to talk to anyone. But then we started to speak to clients and some of them were lawyers and doctors, and then we never saw them again. They were afraid [to help us], because this was the Russian mafia.”

Katya finally escaped her enslavement with the help of one concerned customer. She then went on to be one of the few victims to help prosecute her traffickers. But while her story has a relatively happy ending, hundreds of thousands of others worldwide remain trapped. Human trafficking is now the second largest criminal industry after drug trafficking. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) surveyed 155 countries for its report on modern-day slavery, and says that the numbers are rising because many governments are not fighting the problem. The report didn't give any numbers for how many people are enslaved worldwide, but estimates range from 800,000 new victims each year, according to the U.S. State Department, to 2.5 million, according to the International Labor Organization.

"Many governments are still in denial. There is even neglect when it comes to either reporting on, or prosecuting cases of human trafficking,” according to Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of UNODC. He said that while the number of convictions for human trafficking is increasing, 40 percent of the countries covered by the UNODC report had not recorded a single conviction.

“I didn’t have money in my country,” Katya said. “But we cannot blame only the country. Now, I am blaming the people who buy these services, because if there is no buyer there would be no one being sold.”

The most common form of human trafficking is sexual exploitation, according to the report, with the victims being predominantly women and girls. The second most common form of human trafficking is forced labor, although this may be a misrepresentation because forced labor is less frequently detected and reported than trafficking for sexual exploitation.

“Two hundred years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln, there are now more slaves than there were at any point in human history,” says E. Benjamin Skinner, author of “A Crime So Monstrous.” Skinner, who spent years tracking slavery rings worldwide, says the UN must force its member states to deal actively with the problem. “I frankly haven’t seen the action on the ground that a crime against humanity would engender,” he said. “What good is the UN if it doesn’t live up to its charter and defend the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? What good is the UN if it can’t engender a robust response from its member states on a crime against humanity? I commend the UN for putting out this report, but it should in no way be considered action.”

According to Skinner, action means breaking the backs of traffickers by having a robust, aggressive approach to identifying, arresting and successfully prosecuting traffickers so that they don’t go back into the field. He says that in his reporting he often met traffickers who had already been incarcerated for limited terms and turned back to the slave trade as soon as they were released. At the same time, Skinner says that there needs to be more development opportunities in impoverished communities so people will not turn to informal lenders, who often wind up compelling people into slavery to work off a loan.

With the global economic crisis, the numbers of those enslaved are only set to increase unless more development options are funded, Skinner said.

One of the greatest barriers to forcing countries to fight slavery is the lack of awareness of the problem. Bridgette Carr, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School, says ignorance is bliss for traffickers. “With the economy and desperation increasing, we will see slavery increasing,” she said “This problem has been with us for a long time. We need to open our eyes to it. Once you learn about this issue, you start to see the world differently.”

Worldwide, almost 20 percent of all trafficking victims are children. But in some parts of the world, children are the majority of the enslaved. “I wish I could say that that number shocks and surprises me, but it doesn’t,” Carr said. “Part of the reason is that I see first-hand how many children are enslaved in the U.S. out in the open. They are working in restaurants and hair-braiding salons. So if it is happening out in the open in the U.S., a country that is trying to fight the issue, you can easily see how the numbers would be much higher elsewhere.”

Carr believes that in addition to countries taking action against modern-day slavery, communities need to get more involved, asking questions about the underage hairbraider in their salon or the young girl walking the streets late at night.

For Katya, the nightmares still haven’t ended, but she believes that she must speak about her experience to draw more attention to those still enslaved in the U.S. and around the world. “Psychologically, I am still suffering,” she said, adding that she now works in a factory and goes to school part-time to study law enforcement. “I have nightmares. Sometimes it’s hard for me to close my eyes, because I am afraid that I will end up back there in that club. But everyday it’s getting better. Two years ago, I was afraid. Now I want people to know what happened so that it won’t happen to others.”


Filed under: 360° Radar • Alexandra Poolos • Global 360°
soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Lorah

    The women in this article was right... if we want to stop the trafficking the lawyers, doctors and other white collared folk need to stop paying for their services.

    February 20, 2009 at 8:59 am |
  2. Baat BUKAS

    Slavery have never stoped around the world.Dictatorship that are,at some extend,encouraged by th west in the third world,is open slavery over the people of those specific countries.Nothing to say but obey whatever the master says.Enough is enough,all this should stop by educating people about their rights one way or the other.

    February 20, 2009 at 8:23 am |
  3. Lucky Ushie

    The issue of slavery is a common thing in africa, as people still see themself as masters over others.

    February 20, 2009 at 8:14 am |
  4. An American Muslim

    Every soul is a slave. Some choose to be slaves of money, slaves of materials, slaves of objects that do nothing to nourish the soul in gaining contenment. While others choose to be slaves of God. Really, the only way for any of us slaves can truly be free is to submit one's will to the will of God, play the role & follow the rules of a righteous life that the One God designed for each human He has created. Life is a short test that will pass. Living with preserverance & belief that the One God is the Most Just is the only way for the oppressed to have hope. But Satan pictures this idea differently and many fall into the trap of Hell because of it.

    Without faith in that, there is no hope, no justice, no ease...hence, self-corruption, self-mutilation, and self-disrespect are all inevitable. Not trying to be negative, just realistic...

    February 20, 2009 at 7:57 am |
  5. Andre

    When will the collective conscience awake to these atrocities? My fellow human beings there will be no oppressed, slave or abused if we will stop oppressors, masters and abusers. Imagine how many child women and man we will save if we just remove the bad elements from societies. The decision is in our hand no need for governments or the United Nations if they fail. We know what is right let us take justice into our own hands.

    February 20, 2009 at 7:32 am |
  6. Jorge Altamirano

    Times never really do change. Just the wording of problems. Shame.

    February 20, 2009 at 7:21 am |
  7. Flo

    When I read this sad story, it remembered me how creepy are some people who take advantage of the poverty of others.
    The thing is all of us know that there's a human traffic worldwide. But The authorities turned a blind eye. essentially the countries where the victims come from. I give all my support to the organizations who fight everyday to change this practice.

    February 20, 2009 at 7:06 am |
  8. Xeres

    It's the unwritten, untold and uncared crime that passes us each and every day. How many times I hear that someone, mainly women, fall prey to abusive men, needs a good beating or worse, 'mindgames are so fun' and usually they have the largest group of friends around them. One would think that makes easy picks, I sure avoid them, but no-one seems to care about where it all begins and 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil', because ' all need fair chances and no-one must judge before a judge does so'. It sickens to my stomach, this is not why we were put here on this earth. By all fairness, the slavery as it was in ancient times, in Rome etc., but some excessive exceptions, was a pretty good system.

    February 20, 2009 at 6:50 am |
  9. Kim

    On occasion I have read different stories similar to Katya's. It is a shame and at the same time I am happy to hear that she is able to speak out and maybe be able to help others.
    But I also have to agree with Gene from Vermont. I watched a news special on a PBS channel recently interviewing management people from Hane's. The big underwear company. They built a factory in Vietnam and are pay $80.00 per week for a 48 hour week. That is after they had closed a plant in South Carolina and left many hard working Americans jobless. But they still want us to buy their product. I think that people like Micheal Jordan and other popular figures should start doing a little homework who they want to do endorsements for. We supported them didn't we? Gene is wright on when he is referring to white collar injustices. Another form of slavery, SLAVE LABOR.

    February 20, 2009 at 5:27 am |
  10. WorldWatch-INA

    It's useless to alledge and insult any country for slavery. We still keep seeing it around the world. We better should ask ourselves what ciivilization are we on this planet. What? Are we a civilization?

    Besides: slavery is more than just committing a crime related with human trafficking. It's kidnapping, imprisonment and forced labor at the same time as well.

    And, what means "modern-day slavery"? When someone offers a job which pays you too less, as we can see to Latin American immigrants working in the US, it's a kind of modern-day slavery too.

    February 20, 2009 at 4:47 am |
  11. Clark

    how high do our taxes need to get before we are considered slaves of our own government? Kelsey Grammar says he pays 60% in taxes ... does that mean he is a slave 7 months per year?

    February 19, 2009 at 11:08 pm |
  12. Annie Kate

    I find it so horribly depressing that any kind of slavery goes on now in the "modern" world – I guess we can advance technologically and in other ways but when it gets to human nature we are still struggling with the basics.

    February 19, 2009 at 9:17 pm |
  13. Lydia,Victorville, Ca

    Go to rural Louisiana.See the truth for yourself. It is shocking to see and experience in 2009. Freedom exist only if you recognize you have it and those around you do nothing to hinder it. People are living if shacks, mobil homes and falling apart buildings that many would not let a dog live in. Yes there are beautiful areas and homes. However many people we meet there are so ignorant that they don't know what they don't know.

    February 19, 2009 at 8:50 pm |
  14. Mari, Salt Lake City

    Slavery has been with us since the beginning of time. The fact that there are slaves today, is tragic.

    February 19, 2009 at 7:58 pm |
  15. Thomas C. Schnarre

    The money spent so far, would be around 5 million dollars for Obama and Porkuski to travel around this would, What a waist to the tax payery!

    February 19, 2009 at 7:58 pm |
  16. Mike, Zephyrhills, FL

    Sex Trade,

    So whats the difference when ones religion forces them to marry a guy many years older than they are and not for love. All in the name of religion or tradition.

    Goes on right here in America!!

    February 19, 2009 at 7:35 pm |
  17. Mike, Zephyrhills, FL

    Slavery has always been and always will be part of our way of life.

    Today Americans enjoy the benefits of such slavery in our nation and thru out the world.

    We want things cheap, that takes cheap labor, here in Florida we have illegal mexicans picking strawberries. These landowners get cheap labor, and FL subsidizes housing, food stamps, and medicaid. So the farmer then charges them rent on houses where 20 people may live in. Thus the famrer gets paid several times for the same house. No income taxes are paid, they do pay 7% sales tax when they buy something. Only payback to society!

    So the next time you eat strawberries from FL, think about this!!

    February 19, 2009 at 7:32 pm |
  18. Ted, Chicago

    I agree that this is now all underground. I would like to know what the real numbers are, as impossible as this seems to figure out. And I too would love to see Anderson Cooper show slavery in some small town in the U.S.

    February 19, 2009 at 7:07 pm |
  19. GF, Los Angeles

    What's sad is people think slaves only existed when blacks were enslaved which is far from the truth. It's all gone underground now regardless of race.

    February 19, 2009 at 6:50 pm |
  20. Beth

    This is a truly sad story. Makes me wonder how people can get their hair-braided by a child and not ask questions.

    February 19, 2009 at 6:24 pm |
  21. xtina, chicago IL

    this is so timely, as Im reading Bid Bad Wolf by Jas. Patterson. As a point aside, this is another good reason to have a consumption tax instead of an income tax. There's so much black market money into the U.S. Shouldn't honest taxpayers be given a break by having the government force people who make money illegally pay into the revenue system with a purchasing tax? As in the book, millions changes hands and the 'slave brokers' make millions without paying income tax on it.

    February 19, 2009 at 6:16 pm |
  22. Sydney

    Slavery has never stopped in America or anywhere else in the world. It was just taken from out in the open to the underground. It is the same for many european countries. Non european countries have always had their system of slavery in the open. Just because it is written on paper that it is illegal in America does not change the mentality of some people or their desire to be master over other people's lives. We have many laws that are broken continously each day and why not this one. We as a country must continue to fight the wrongs that exist within our own borders. Only then can we help other countries.

    February 19, 2009 at 5:29 pm |
  23. Art

    It may be the devil or it may be the lord but your gonna have to serve somebody!

    February 19, 2009 at 5:01 pm |
  24. Sarah

    This is a horrific story. How can this be going on in the U.S.? I commend AC360.com for writing about this story, which I see zero coverage of in the media. It seems to me there are going to be more and more victims of the underground economy as the global financial system collapses. Now, I would love to see Anderson go out in the U.S. and find some of these victims! Would be very compelling television.

    February 19, 2009 at 4:37 pm |
  25. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    If you stop and think about it---aren't we are enslaved to some degree.

    February 19, 2009 at 3:54 pm |
  26. Gene Penszynski from Vermont

    What about US Corporations exploiting the Slave LABORERS of COMMUNIST China and SOCIALIST India. This is just as much Slavery as the sex trade is and it has cost US Millions of American jobs and has seriously weakened our Industrial Infrastructure. Let’s get some white collar Criminal Justice here.

    I can tell you right now that if American Corporations were forced to provide the same working conditions in COMMUNIST China or SOCIALIST India as American workers are required to have here in the U.S.A. there would be no Trade Imbalances what so ever !

    February 19, 2009 at 3:42 pm |
  27. Gene Penszynski from Vermont

    What about US Corporations exploiting the Slave LABORERS of COMMUNIST China and SOCIALIST India. This is jut as mus Slavery as the sex trade is and it has cost US Millions of American jobs and has seriously weakened our Industrial Infrastructure. Let's get some white collar Criminal Justice here !

    February 19, 2009 at 3:39 pm |