Wars, famine, genocide, torture, mutilation, abuse of women and children -- the bewildering array of human rights catastrophes around the world is enough to stymie any neophyte Samaritan. What crisis has the best claim on your money and time? Ethnic violence in Central Europe, repression in East Timor, or some other outrage you haven't even heard about yet? Increasingly, humanitarian groups in the West are focusing on a problem so alarming in its assault on human dignity that it easily trumps them all: slavery.
The word itself seems dated, plucked from a murky, unenlightened past when people somehow didn't understand that what they were doing was wrong. But slavery isn't merely a historical phenomenon, according to a growing consensus of activists and researchers around the world. It's a grim reality faced by as many as tens of millions of people on virtually every continent.
"If you get a huge increase in the population and a lot of people are being pushed into economic vulnerability, both of which have happened in the Third World, you've got lots of people who are very poor and easily manipulated," says Kevin Bales, a lecturer at the Roehampton Institute in Surrey, England, and author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. "The police don't protect them and you can enslave them. That's exactly what's happening in India and Pakistan and Thailand and Brazil and a lot of places around the world.".
The most publicized case of slavery in the modern world is, according to many, not even the most extreme. The kidnapping of Dinka tribespeople by government-backed militias in the Sudan has captured headlines recently, but reports of Sudanese militias selling helpless villagers into slavery have been circulating for over a decade. Until lately they seemed less than urgent to researchers familiar with other crises besetting that region.
"Slavery is not the greatest problem in the Sudan by far," says Jemera Rone, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who focuses on the country.