DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Despite being widely hailed as a turning point in the global fight to end modern slavery, a new estimate of the number of people living as slaves worldwide could in fact complicate efforts to tackle the crime, several academics have warned.
About 40 million people were trapped as slaves last year - mostly women and girls - in forced labor and forced marriages, according to the first collaboration by leading anti-slavery groups to count the victims of the lucrative crime worldwide.
The International Labor Organization (ILO), Walk Free Foundation and International Organization for Migration (IOM) jointly agreed on the estimate, having previously used different data, definitions and methodologies to reach their own figures.
But they cautioned this number was a conservative estimate.
Many activists hope the estimate, published last month, will galvanize rights groups and governments as they strive to meet a global goal of eradicating modern slavery by 2030 - part of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted two years ago.
Yet some academics say the limitations of the data, such as a lack of surveys in the Gulf states and conflict-hit nations like Libya and Syria, and the inclusion of forced marriages for the first time, may divide the global anti-slavery movement.
“One of the main problems here is that ‘fighting slavery’ now means all kinds of different things and relates to all kinds of different issues,” Joel Quirk, head of political studies at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, said by email.
“Instead of a single cause and category upon which everyone is agreed, we instead have multiple ... problems which have been uneasily thrown together under the rubric of fighting ‘modern slavery, human trafficking and forced labor’,” Quirk added.
Among the estimated 40.3 million victims of modern slavery last year, 24.9 million were forced to work in factories, on building sites, farms and fishing boats, and as domestic or sex workers, while 15.4 million were trapped in forced marriages.
This compares with Walk Free’s 2016 estimate of 45.8 million people living as slaves, and an ILO figure of 21 million held in forced labor, but both organizations said the new number does not show either progress or failure in the anti-slavery fight.
Some critics have questioned the difference - of about 20 million people - between Walk Free’s 2016 figure of 45.8 million victims - which did not include forced marriage - and the joint estimate’s number of people kept in forced labor - 24.9 million.
This disparity is due to the more comprehensive methodology used to calculate the latest, joint estimate, according to Kevin Bales, professor of contemporary slavery at Britain’s University of Nottingham and a member of Walk Free’s statistical team.
However, the new estimate may represent a compromise between the ILO and the Walk Free, as to meet halfway and to not discredit their previous, separate efforts, according to Quirk.
“This type of political horse trading is a long way away from the language of neutral and careful analysis, but there are nonetheless lots of political subtexts and currents which sit behind the numbers,” Quirk told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The ILO and Walk Free conducted surveys in 48 countries and interviewed more than 71,000 people with findings supplemented by data from the IOM. The ILO and IOM are both U.N. agencies.
The full breakdown of the methodology has yet to be released.
Experts behind the new figure said forced marriage could be seen as ‘sexual slavery’ - with many girls and women abducted, raped and treated like property - and its inclusion in the estimate would draw much needed attention to the issue globally.
Yet this addition may in fact muddle efforts to end slavery, and could also shift public perceptions, according to Jessie Brunner, a researcher and slavery expert at Stanford University.
About three in four slaves were women and girls and one in four was a child in 2016, with modern slavery most prevalent in Africa followed by Asia and Pacific, according to the estimate.
In the old ILO figure of 21 million people trapped in forced labor, women and girls accounted for 55 percent of the victims.
“The anti-trafficking movement has made significant progress in the past few years toward broadening public understanding of the issue of modern slavery beyond solely forced sexual exploitation of women and girls,” Brunner said.
“The inclusion of forced marriage in the new estimate, albeit a relevant addition, could potentially curb this progress owing to the heavy skewing toward women and girls.”
The United Nations last week defended the new estimate after local media reported that India’s intelligence agency advised Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discredit the research, saying it may tarnish the country’s image and exports.
ILO officials rejected claims that India was being targeted by the data, saying that there were no national figures in the data, and that the estimate did not “single out any country”.
Despite the criticism, Bales, who worked on the new figure, said it was more reliable than previous efforts, and would continue to improve given that the anti-slavery groups were now collaborating and sharing their data openly for the first time.
“If we were talking about TB (tuberculosis), and someone was hiding data, it would be considered villainy,” Bales said.
“It’s positive that the groups have opened up their data. Do we have reliability at the level of a census or high-quality polling? No, because the topic at hand is a criminal activity.”
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