Europe’s other face: Modern slavery by Recep Korkut*

February 06, 2012, Monday/ 17:41:00

These days, one of the greatest steps ever taken for humanity in terms of trying to eliminate and ban torture is accepted as having been the elimination of slavery in 1848 in France.

At the same time, though, it is now quite clear that slavery still lives on in the continent that inspires so much freedom, Europe. Because the “undocumented people who live outside legal procedure,” in other words the immigrants who have largely come from poor countries in Africa and Asia, have lives that are basically the modern equivalent of slavery. Perhaps most Europeans see some of the more basic problems in the modern world -- problems such as human smuggling, sexual abuse of children or sexual slavery -- as being matters far removed from them, or matters that do not really exist. But the fact is, in many European countries, slavery based on these types of exploitation are in fact carried on.

Understanding that slavery is not limited to the dusty shelves of history is perhaps a bit more difficult when one looks at the individuals subsisting on under $1 a day in poor nations that have become nothing more than puppets due to the giant debts to richer countries. To wit, this sort of labor exploitation, done under the mask of investment in other countries, has now become one of the basic realities of the global economy these days. But in these situations, at least the workers possess -- if limited -- some basic rights and freedoms. Instead, the slaves I am referring to are those whose lives are held under lien by those in possession of full legal weapons. In other words, these are real slaves. These are people who have been enslaved through violence or simply mountains of financial debt and who have standing behind them no international force and have no legal recourse to which they can turn, and no organization to assist them.

And the embarrassing reality herein is that legal regulations actually work to legitimize this sort of unlabeled slavery. And those in the ranks of these slaves are the same ones who are labeled as “illegals” and who suffer all sorts of discrimination, separation and exploitation in their efforts to survive and subsist, and who are forbidden from basic services such as education and health. For them, getting sick is a luxury, as is -- for that matter -- getting old. And on top of everything, they must not make any noise about any of this. Because there is the ever-present risk of deportation, a risk that causes great worry that in turn weaves the web around them even tighter.

Beyond this, though, it is not possible for these modern slaves to fight for any rights for themselves. These are people who are in a sense completely dependent on the human traffickers who have brought them to their new homes and who force them into jobs in the sex industry, service sector, construction sector and private homes. All of this condemns them to lives being simply crushed by others. And the sheer numbers of these modern slaves are not small: people like the Ethiopian man who works for one euro for 18 hours, even though you can’t drink a coffee for that much in Berlin, or the Sri Lankan who collects trash in the freezing cold of Zurich near modern plazas, the Cameroonians who live in 20 to 100-square-meter homes in one of Paris’ wretched camps. And for as long as the legal weapon of “threat of deportation” is aimed at these modern slaves, their situations will persist.

A system of modern slavery

Reports from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) reveal that in fact the tendency to put to work an enslaved labor force has spread throughout the continent like some sort of disease. And parallel to this increased tendency is an increase in human trafficking as well as a development and professionalization of human trade in general. To wit, the displeasure with immigration that has been sparked by economic crises in many European countries has also made the illegal status of many immigrants even starker. And this situation has become a true nightmare for many of those forced to leave their own countries and work in the West. And with human traffickers taking advantage of the situation and turning the people to whom they promise much to a dependency on them, the entire embarrassing system of modern slavery, based as it is on exploitation, has emerged.

Just a quick reference to the story of Sri Lankan servant Somalatha -- a story that first emerged in 2006 -- is enough to help one understand the dimensions which exploitations in Europe have reached in these modern days. This particular tragic story took place in England. Somalatha, a 29-year-old, left her own country for England with the hope that her hopelessness and poverty might change. Her dream that she might start a new life in a wonderful new world was crushed when she arrived in England, though. Instead, she found herself forced to try and stand on her feet alone, surrounded by what appeared to be a cruel and uncaring society. Her daily life was indistinguishable from slavery when she started working in England; 18-hour days, with no time off at all during the week. And all of this for less than 200 pounds per month. Since she was not allowed to eat alongside the family for whom she worked, she would receive leftovers if there were any, and if not, she would try and nourish herself from potatoes and onions.

Not only this, but Somalatha -- who waited years for her fate to change in life with her move to England -- was also exposed to both psychological and physical abuse in her job. She was finally saved by a civil society organization called Kalayaan, which was founded with the aim of helping just such immigrants as Somalatha.

But research does show that the number of modern slaves living and working under conditions that resemble Somalatha’s is increasing every day on the European continent. And the exploitation at hand appears to be one that targets women more than men. It should be underlined that the problem of modern slavery is really one that largely concerns women. And it should also be noted that just as women are the victims of this unfortunate situation, so are children. In fact, children compose an important sector of the modern slave market. The International Labour Organization (ILO) notes that there are currently an estimated 12.3 million people being forced into illegal work situations around the world and that more than half of these are women and children. And it is also estimated that these numbers could rise to 30 million people. Most, of course, in modern, developed countries.

In short, we see that immigrants coming to many European countries from Third World nations are labeled as illegal workers, undocumented foreigners or perhaps refugees, a habit that not only allows but even supports the persistence of the conditions of modern slavery, which then shape their lives. This is the other face of Europe, the one most don’t see as clearly. But for many people, it is the very real face of Europe. So even though we might celebrate today the fact that it has been 200 years since the official elimination and banning of slavery by France, the fact is that slavery is a legacy that remains from the past on the European continent. The slavery today has lost the chains that symbolized it in the past. And beyond the fact that this sort of modern slavery separates people on the basis of gender, class and religion, these separations are becoming a deeper problem every day in Europe. One cannot help wondering, observing the immigrants forced to live and work as modern slaves in Europe these days, whether this continent is in fact the cradle of modern civilization, or instead some sort of swamp for the modern world. Whatever one’s conclusion, we have to accept that in fact, modern slavery is not a problem far removed from us. Perhaps one should think of the observation from writer Amin Maalouf: We all share one fate.


*Recep Korkut is an expert on migration. [email protected]