Big Story 10

Satellites and science turn tide in fight to end slavery: expert

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Breakthroughs in science and technology are helping to turn the tide in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking, a leading anti-slavery expert said on Wednesday.

From mapping slave labor from space to exploring links between human trafficking and deforestation, academics, activists and scientists are finding new ways to tackle the crime, said Kevin Bales, co-founder of charity Free the Slaves.

Innovation is crucial with the lucrative trade - worth an estimated $150 billion a year (114 billion pounds)- growing as the price of slaves plummets, said Bales, who is a professor of contemporary slavery at Britain’s University of Nottingham.

The average modern-day slave is sold for just $90 (68 pounds), against the equivalent of $40,000 (30,000 pounds) some 200 years ago during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, he added.

“When we unlock the science of slavery ... we can use the laws of science to help crack this crime,” he said at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual two-day Trust Conference, which focuses on women’s empowerment and modern slavery.

Bales also pointed to progress in gathering global data on slavery, following the first joint effort by the United Nations (U.N.) International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation to count the number of victims worldwide.

About 40 million people were estimated to be trapped as slaves in 2016, mostly women and girls, in forced labor, sexual exploitation and forced marriages, according to the two groups.

The University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, the world’s first large-scale research platform on modern slavery, is using satellites to locate child labor camps in Bangladesh and brick kilns in India - sites infamous for using slaves, Bales said.

Its “Slavery from Space” project relies on crowdsourcing, whereby online volunteers sift through satellite images to identify possible hives of slavery, which can also help to improve artificial intelligence, according to Bales.

Researchers are also striving to better understand the impact of slavery on survivors’ minds, and the possible genetic transmission of trauma from generation to generation, he said.

“Through science, we can move from the simplistic, emotive and disorganized response of 20 years ago, and towards a more complex, logical, unified approach,” Bales said.

Improved data collection techniques are making it easier to track progress in the global drive to end slavery, and better measure the crime in rich countries where slaves are often hidden, thinly spread and harder to monitor, he said.

The United Nations has a global goal to eradicate forced labor and slavery by 2030 and end child labor by 2025.