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We Need to Recapture the Spirit of Wilberforce to Fight Slavery in Our Own Time

(John R. Miller is a former U.S. Congressman from Seattle and chairman of the Discovery Institute Board of Directors. Most recently he was the U.S. Ambassador at Large on Modern Day Slavery. He now teaches international relations at George Washington University's Elliott School and is a Senior Fellow for International Affairs at Discovery Institute.)

"Amazing Grace" continues to do a good business in American movie houses and is destined for a creditable run elsewhere in the world and then in DVDs for families, students and churches. Although abbreviated in the film's telling, "Amazing Grace" is a great story, and well told. Through the film many millions will be introduced to William Wilberforce, the evangelical reformer who spent a large part of his life seeking the abolition of the slave trade and pushing the British Admiralty to use force against the slavers. This spring marks the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce's success.

But there is a bittersweet aftermath to this affirmative story: Numerically, there are likely more slaves today than there were in Wilberforce's day. The real shame in this is that more people are not aware of it.

To their credit, the producer, Walden Media, has acknowledged in materials distributed on the Internet, that slavery still exists and that there is plenty of room for modern day Wilberforces.

The existence in every country in the 21st century of slavery comes as a shock to many citizens of this country who believe that slavery ended with the American civil war. It came as a shock to the UN General Assembly when President Bush devoted over twenty per cent of his 2003 speech to that body to the subject of modern day slavery. Of course, legalized slavery did end in the U.S. with the civil war, and legalized slavery has ended in every nation of the world, although in some cases such as Mauritania and Saudi Arabia, legal abolition did not come till the second half of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, today, while slavery is not legalized, it flourishes. The international slave trade along with internal slavery reaches into every country in the world and involves millions. In the so called "advanced" countries, the largest category of slavery is sex slavery linked to prostitution that is either legalized or tolerated. In the Near East the largest category is domestic servitude slavery fed by huge migrations of young women from South Asia. On the Indian subcontinent the largest category is bonded labor slavery of the lowest castes in rice mills, carpet factories and brick kilns. In Uganda and Sri Lanka the largest category is probably child soldier slavery.

Most of the victims are female and a large percentage is girls, making modern day slavery more gender based than race based. Much of the slavery is linked to organized crime and the increased travel and communications that have come with globalization. Except for bonded labor slavery, rarely does one find a victim in her home town; she has been trafficked from another part of the country or across international borders.

Along with greed and attitudes toward gender, inequality of income is a major factor as many, whether impoverished or not, see and hear of material pleasures in other places. A family in Thailand that can support a child, albeit in modest circumstances, sells her to buy a TV. A family in Nigeria looks at televised images of Western Europe and turns its girl over to an "auntie" who takes her to Italy. A high school or college student in Russia reads of a glamorous life in Sweden and answers a deceptive ad.

With all the reading and writing of reports that I did as the U.S. Ambassador at Large on Modern Day Slavery, nothing moved me as much as the meetings I had all over the world with survivors. I did not believe slavery could exist in a democratic country until I met Katya in The Netherlands. Katya had left a failing marriage and a two year old daughter in the Czech Republic when a "friend of the family" suggested she go to Amsterdam where she could make money waiting on tables. Driven with other young women by a Czech trafficker across Europe who linked up with a Dutch trafficker, Katya's passport was soon taken from her and she was driven to a brothel in Amsterdam's red light district.

"I came to work in a restaurant", said Katya. "You will work here", said the traffickers, "you owe us 20,000 Euros for bringing you across Europe".

"I won't do things like this", replied Katya. "Yes you will", replied the traffickers, "if you want your two year old daughter back home to live". And so Katya succumbed as many have in Western Europe, Japan, the United States and other destination countries.

Then there was Lord, the Laotian teenager who I met in Thailand. At the age of eleven, Lord had been sold by her parents and resold and finally deposited across the border in a Bangkok embroidery factory. Unable to go out, given minimal food and clothing and no wages, Lord with other children sewed fourteen hours a day. Beaten when she rebelled, Lord was banished to a closet as an example and the slave owner poured industrial chemicals on her.

Or there was Nour, the young Indonesian woman who came to Saudi Arabia to help support her family at home and found herself locked in a home and beaten to a point where she lost fingers and toes from gangrene.

Katya, Lord and Nour are the lucky ones. Katya was rescued with the help of a friendly taxi driver, Lord was rescued by the police, and Nour was discovered at a hospital where she had been taken by her "owners" for "repairs".

While the estimates of those in slavery run into the many millions (there can be no exact count for victims do not stand in line and raise their hands), there are signs of belated progress. When the U.S. passed its anti-trafficking law in 2000, there were only a handful of countries with such laws. In just the last two years, eighty countries have passed such legislation. Several years ago the number of traffickers sent to jail numbered in the hundreds. Last year according to the U.S. State Department, the figure was 4,700. Hundreds of shelters have been set up to care for survivors over the last few years all around the world. The news media coverage of modern day slavery (and the growth in public awareness) has risen exponentially. And yet so much more remains to be done in every country, including the U.S.

What can Americans do to carry on Wilberforce's legacy? Find out if there is a nongovernmental organization caring for survivors in your community. Find out if the local police are sensitive to and search out victims. Find out if local anti-pimping ordinances are being enforced. Find out if a local church or civic group helps fight modern day slavery abroad. Find out from the state legislator in your district whether there is a state anti-trafficking in persons law. Join with friends or local churches or civic groups to accomplish the foregoing objectives.

Wilberforce and his friends thought they had abolished slavery in the British Empire. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe thought they had abolished slavery in the United States. They nurtured a 19th century abolitionist movement, We, their descendants, must nurture a 21st century abolitionist movement.

You can email brucechapman@discovery.org

2 Comments

Thank you for the read.. I'm having trouble counting sheep.:P..

I'm so excited for all of the people of Tunisia after reading of them break free from their former rotten government. The people of Tunisia are now showing their will to create a better society, and also their strength and bravery through audacious protest. I hope for the stability of Tunisia and the success of the Tunisian people in the future.

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