OPINION: Racism and prejudice has always underpinned slavery, and it still does today

by Jasmine O’Connor | @jasmine_oc | Anti-Slavery International
Friday, 23 August 2019 12:27 GMT

A man looks out from a sea viewing commenorative building that is known locally as 'The Tunnel' that is sited near the 'Point of No Return' where slaves were shipped from the slave port at Badagry, Nigeria June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

August 23rd is Slavery Remembrance Day, and August 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the first slave ships reaching American shores

Jasmine O’Connor is the CEO of Anti-Slavery International

You could stick a pin in a timeline across the last 2,000 years and the conditions that support and underpin slavery would be similar. Whether its Dalits in debt bondage in Indian brick kilns, African migrants sold in Libyan slave markets or Vietnamese teenagers trafficked through Europe, slavery thrives where discrimination is tolerated. So, if we choose to demonise the ‘other’ in our country or community, we cannot then be surprised that those people become exploited.

This year, and this month, marks several anniversaries – none worth celebrating. This year, Anti-Slavery International turns 180-years-old. As the CEO of this, the world’s oldest human rights organisation, it may seem strange that I do not wish to celebrate. I am deeply proud of the impact that our organisation and its members and collaborators has had in making slavery illegal in all countries in the world. We remain diligent in our work now that protects the most vulnerable people in the world. But I am equally determined to ensure that we are no longer needed in 2199, because we need to rid society of the horror of slavery.

This month also marks the 400th anniversary of the first slave ships reaching American shores – representing the growth of a grim trade in humans, the repercussions of which we see today.

Today – 23rd August - we commemorate Slavery Remembrance Day to reflect on a major period of trauma and injustice in world history, which is too often ignored. It also gives us a chance to acknowledge the ongoing legacy of slavery; a practice abolished over 200 years ago.

Banned in all of the world’s countries and under international law, the scourge of slavery persists. People who are made vulnerable by circumstance are tricked, coerced, trapped, exploited and remain at the mercy of their exploiters. Case after case we see that exploiters are enabled where discrimination and intolerance are found. The first step to enslaving another human being is to undermine that person’s humanity through discrimination based on their race, immigration status, caste, age or gender. Couple this with poverty and laws that will not protect those discriminated against, or indeed actively encourage it, and the exploiters find themselves in the best possible enabling environment for their profit margins.

The cruel cycle of caste and slave descent discrimination that we see in our projects in Nepal and West Africa illustrate that this discrimination is so embedded, that even children born into an ‘owned’ family are treated as asset to their masters. Their caste and their descent are a key indicator of how they should be treated in society; sold, gifted, dehumanised. Only through long term work on rehabilitating these families, and them demanding their own governments to better protect them from exploiters, can we truly break this horrific cycle.

Yet, we don’t need to look as far afield as Asia and Africa to understand how hostile and discriminatory environments impact the vulnerable. In the UK there is growing unease with slavery survivors seen as immigration offenders and not as victims of serious crime against them. Detained, deported, or left in destitution, they are routinely not protected and can be made more vulnerable to exploitation. What better way could a government improve the recruitment environment for an exploiter?

In our uncertain and divisive times, we must call out every form of discrimination. I can only imagine how difficult it was for the original abolitionists to make the case that African slaves were their brothers and sisters in humanity and deserve the same rights as they enjoyed. That message should be easier to tell today, if we choose it; that freedom is an unequivocal right afforded to everyone. We must work to cut off the oxygen supply to slavery, instead working together to build communities and nations that treat all humans with dignity and respect.

So get involved in Slavery Remembrance Day but use it to take action. Learn about slavery and how to spot its signs. Use your consumer power and ask questions when shopping. Sign a petition to protect, not neglect, the survivors in the UK. Simply share a social media post or talk to your friends about it. Join the movement to ensure freedom to everyone, everywhere, always.

Themes