LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From mapping slave labor from space to exploring links between human trafficking and environmental destruction, experts are joining forces at a British university to tackle modern slavery on multiple fronts to end the ever-evolving crime by 2030.
More than 100 academics from at least 15 disciplines at the University of Nottingham in central England have set up the world’s first large-scale research platform on slavery called the Rights Lab.
The new multi-million pound project aims to meet the United Nations’ global goal of ending forced labor and modern slavery by 2030 - part of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 to end poverty, tackle climate change and promote equality.
Kevin Bales, a leading slavery expert and research director at the Rights Lab, said the university’s investment of 9 million pounds ($12 million) was a “big step forward, a quantum leap”.
“We want to do with slavery what the World Health Organization (WHO) set out to do with smallpox decades ago, and, before long, live in a world where it is eradicated,” Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“People increasingly see slavery as a problem, but we need to prove to the world that it affects many parts of our lives.”
Yet the crime - estimated to generate profits of about $150 billion a year globally - is becoming harder to identify, track and punish with traffickers across the world turning to technology to move, sell and exploit their victims, Bales said.
Technology has fueled a surge in trafficking children online for sexual abuse with advertising a child on the internet - often done through online classified advertising sites such as Backpage.com - as simple as booking an airfare, activists say.
“Everyone is just waking up to online trafficking, and the link between technology and slavery,” Bales said. “It is a novel situation to have the simultaneous sexual exploitation of one victim by thousands of people online over webcam.”
“This trend is particularly tricky to deal with, it is constantly evolving and way ahead of any legislative framework.”
One of the Rights Lab’s main goals is to devise better mental health support for survivors of slavery, tailoring care for people from different backgrounds and cultures, Bales said.
Trafficking victims in Britain receive little to no therapy or counseling, according to Bales, who described the current provision of care as “piecemeal, arbitrary and short-lived”.
Britain in 2015 passed the Modern Slavery Act to crack down on traffickers and protect people feared at risk of being enslaved, but critics say victims are often neglected.
“A victim of sex trafficking may be placed in public housing full of men in a rough situation, leaving the individual at risk of abuse, grooming or being trafficked again,” Bales said.
“The government has made great strides on law enforcement, but victims are often left hanging when it comes to support.”
Another aim for the researchers is to expand their ‘Slavery from Space’ project - using satellites to locate brick kilns in India - sites infamous for using slaves.
Bales is aware of the challenge facing his team, with about 46 million people estimated by the Walk Free Foundation to be living as slaves but that number likely to be far higher as conflict and migration leave more people at risk, experts say.
Yet the anti-slavery campaigner said his team’s approach to tackling slavery with a wide variety of approaches would show the far-reaching societal benefits of eradicating the practice.
“When people come out of slavery and reintegrate into society, we see dramatic knock-on effects for the economy, education, housing, the workforce and even peace,” Bales said.
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Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org