Global crises fuel rise in modern slavery, report finds

Almost one in eight of all those in forced labour are children, the report found. (Keystone/EPA)

Millions more people have been forced into modern slavery over the last five years, new figures show, as overlapping crises such as Covid and armed conflicts have left countries and their populations more vulnerable to being exploited.

An estimated 50 million people were victims of forced labour and forced marriage in 2021, an increase of 25 per cent since 2016, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). 

Covid-19, conflicts, extreme weather events caused by climate change, and other global crises have exacerbated the situation by disrupting jobs and education, forcing people to migrate and plunging millions further into poverty. 

Cases of gender-based violence also rose during the pandemic. All these factors have made people more vulnerable to being forced into situations they “cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, abuse of power” or other forms of coercion that define modern slavery, the report said. 

“It is shocking that the situation of modern slavery is not improving,” ILO director-general, Guy Ryder, said. 

“We know what needs to be done, and we know it can be done”, he added in a statement, calling for more effective national policies and regulation. 

The number of people in situations of forced labour increased by 2.7 million to 26.6 million over the last five years – making up more than half the total estimates for modern slavery – and driven almost entirely by the private economy. 

Almost a quarter (23 per cent) of forced labour cases are in commercial sexual exploitation but other major sectors include manufacturing, construction, agriculture, and domestic work. 

Almost one in eight of all those in forced labour are children (3.3 million), while more than half of these are in commercial sexual exploitation. 

All parts of the world are affected, the ILO and IOM said, with more than half of all forced labour cases occurring in either upper-middle income or high-income countries, and migrants particularly vulnerable.

The number of people living in forced marriage on any given day in 2021 increased by 6.6 million since the 2016 estimates. However the authors warned that the number is likely to be far greater than estimates can capture, especially where children aged 16 and younger are involved. 

Although two-thirds (65 per cent) of forced marriages are found in Asia and the Pacific, when regional population size is considered, the prevalence is highest in the Arab States, with 4.8 people out of every 1,000 in the region in forced marriage.