Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery

Busayo is a 19-year-old student from Nigeria.  She was sold in Niger, along with many others, by a man who had told her she could get work as a nurse. She was then taken to Sebha, Libya and held in a camp. Busayo was rescued by the MOAS crews in November 2016 in the Central Mediterranean.

In honour of World Day against Trafficking in Persons on 30th July, here we explore smuggling, human trafficking and their increasingly close and brutal relationship with modern day slavery. 

In modern day society in Europe and North America the painful legacy of trafficking and slavery has ongoing effects on the lives of our communities. Although much progress has been made since the days when systematic imprisonment, trafficking and exploitation were the norm, the phenomenon has by no means disappeared entirely, and in other parts of the world it is still a thriving and devastating reality for many. The historical and geographical contexts may be shifting but modern day slavery is an issue that must be acknowledged and addressed by the international community, and one that has become inextricably linked to the complex debates surrounding forced migration.

Modern day slavery and human trafficking

The Global Slavery Index (GSI)’s latest figures estimate that over 45.8 million people, of which 12% are children, remain trapped in this $150 billion industry. Slavery takes many forms, all equally destructive to the individuals and communities affected. Slavery is defined as an individual being:

  • forced to work – through coercion, or mental or physical threat;
  • owned or controlled by an ’employer’, through mental or physical abuse or the threat of abuse;
  • dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as ‘property’;
  • physically constrained or have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement.

For example, forced labour, child slavery and the sex trade are, arguably, definable forms of modern ay slavery that are growing and ebbing around the world as the market dictates.

A highly prevalent aspect of modern slavery is the crime of human trafficking. According to international law, it includes three elements:

1) the act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harbouring or receiving a person;
2) by means of, for example, deception, coercion or abuse of vulnerability;
3) for the purpose of exploitation.

People are trafficked for many exploitative purposes: for forced labour, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, removal of organs, forced begging, and for use as child soldiers. It can occur both within a country and across borders, while people who are displaced or are forced to undertake irregular journeys are particularly at risk.


Trafficking and forced migratory journeys

Given the continuing absence of safe and legal routes for people fleeing violence, poverty and persecution, many of the people MOAS rescue are forced to rely on the services of people smugglers, who they pay to assist them access routes across Africa and the Mediterranean in order to reach safety. According to the UNODC, migrants and refugees who have been smuggled are particularly vulnerable to falling into trafficking, in part because the high costs associated with the journey as well as its unregulated nature, which leaves people extremely vulnerable to extortion and being held for forced labour.

Smuggling and trafficking share many characteristics; a business model, tactics and a near-disregard for human rights; but there is a crucial, if not subtle, distinction which shouldn’t be overlooked. Smuggling is generally accepted as occurring with the consent and participation of the victim, whereas trafficking refers to the involuntary movement of people for financial gain at the cost of exploiting victims under coercion or the threat of force. A key element of the distinction is the presence or not of consent; people who turn to smugglers agree to pay for and undertake the journey, while people who are trafficked have not had a choice, and may find themselves living under conditions of slavery. Nevertheless, international organisations monitoring conditions along the main smuggling routes through the Sahara have noted the increasing likelihood of people who have been smuggled being trafficked and sold into slavery.


Slavery along forced migratory routes

IOM have recently reported on large-scale slavery operations growing openly along the biggest smuggling routes through Niger and Libya. Every conceivable human service, from sex to domestic servitude, hard labour to repaying a debt, will have its price to the right buyer. According to the IOM, with no apparent deterrent, or fear of prosecution, the human trade has become so normalised that it is not uncommon to witness exchanges taking place in public.

The IOM report focused on a man identified as “SC”. After a disgruntled driver claimed not to have been paid for his part in transporting migrants, SC described being driven to a public slave market and bought by a private “owner” where he was kept hostage, along with over 100 others facing the same fate. Like so many, his only escape from captivity was an ever-increasing ransom which is tragically beyond the means of most migrants who have saved and worked for years to even attempt their journey in the first place. It has been reported that those who cannot pay for their release are killed or left to starve to death.

For each person who succeeds in crossing the Mediterranean, many more may have been lost; either to the sea, to the activities of modern slavery or the strains of the journey itself. We look forward to the day where slavery is forever consigned to history. Only those who no longer have anything left to lose would willingly place themselves under the ever-hanging threat of death in search of the life we take for granted. This World Day against Trafficking in Persons, we remember all those who have been the victims of this crime.

You can also catch our podcast focusing on human trafficking and smuggling in Libya and Niger here. Please sign up to our newsletter at the bottom of this page for all the MOAS news and updates and support our rescue missions by giving whatever you can to help us save lives at sea.





This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.