There were an estimated 50 million people around the world in conditions of forced labor and forced marriage in 2021, according to a report published in late May by Walk Free Foundation.

Walk Free defines modern slavery as “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion or deception,” explaining that the term “includes forced labor, forced or servile marriage, debt bondage, forced commercial sexual exploitation, human trafficking, slavery-like practices, and the sale and exploitation of children.”

Using the latest data available, the report determined that there were more than 27 million people in forced labor and around 22 million in forced marriages. Of the 50 million people in conditions of slavery around the world, around 12 million were children and 52% of all people in forced labor were residing in upper-middle and high-income nations.

The highest prevalence of enslaved persons was in North Korea (104.6 per 1,000 population), followed by Eritrea (90.3), Mauritania (32), Saudi Arabia (21.3) and Türkiye (15.6). Nations experiencing ongoing, long-term conflict tend to be locations in which forced labor and forced marriage are widespread, the report said.

Forced labor is widespread in North Korea, with an estimated 1 in 10 people enslaved – most of whom are forced to work by the government. Around 9% of Eritrea’s population is in conditions of forced labor, also due to government compulsion.

The highest number of enslaved persons are in India (11 million), followed by China (5.8 million), North Korea (2.7 million), Pakistan (2.3 million) and Russia (1.9 million). In the U.S., an estimated 1.1 million people were enslaved in 2021.

Of the countries assessed , there were allegations of government complicity in 90 nations, either in the form of “active involvement in committing modern slavery crimes” or due to “turning a blind eye to the action of criminal,” the report said.

Five recommendations were provided to governments, businesses and the international community:

  • Recognize and respond to modern slavery as an intersectional issue.
  • Focus on prevention and protection for those already vulnerable.
  • Ensure effective civil and criminal protections in legislation to tackle forced and child marriage.
  • Implement stronger measures to combat forced labor in public and private supply chains.
  • Prioritize human rights when engaging with repressive regimes.

“The new Global Estimates revealed that the situation is worse than when we last measured in 2016. Since then, the number of men, women, and children forced to work against their will or in a forced marriage has risen by 10 million,” according to a news release announcing the report. “The worsening situation has occurred against a backdrop of increasing conflict, environmental degradation, over a decade of global democratic decline, a global rollback of women’s rights and the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and responses to it.”

The full report is available here. An executive summary is available here.

Additional resources, including regional overviews, essays from survivors of forced labor / marriage, and spotlights on drivers of modern slavery, are available here.

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