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A United Nations report released Monday revealed that some 50 million people worldwide were living in “modern slavery” at the end of 2021, marking a significant setback in progress.
The figures were a 25% jump from the previous report in 2017 on people who were either in forced labor or marriages.
“It is shocking that the situation of modern slavery is not improving,” said International Labor Organization Director-General Guy Ryder in a statement. “Nothing can justify the persistence of this fundamental abuse of human rights.”
The ILO and partners point to worrying trends such as “commercial sexual exploitation” affecting nearly one in four people who are subject to forced labor – with the poor, women and children being disproportionately vulnerable.
ILO, along with the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration and the Walk Free foundation – a rights group that focuses on modern slavery – reported that 28 million people were in forced labor and 22 in forced marriages at the end of 2021.
The report released Monday said such figures marked an increase of 10 million people living in modern slavery since the last such report was published in 2017, based on figures a year earlier. Two-thirds of the increase pertained to forced marriages alone, it said.
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Based on available data, ILO and partners found increases in child and forced marriages in countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Congo, Egypt, India, Uganda and Yemen. But the report said wealthier countries were “not immune” to the problem, with nearly one-in-four forced marriages taking place in high or upper middle-income countries.
Crises including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and armed conflict have underpinned rises in extreme poverty, unsafe migration, and gender-based violence in recent years, raising the risk of all forms of modern slavery, it said.
All told, more than 2/3 of all forced marriages were found in the Asia-Pacific region – the world’s most populous region – but the highest number per capita came in Arab countries where nearly 5 in 1,000 people were in forced marriages.
Forced marriage, the report said, is closely tied to “long-established patriarchal attitudes and practices” – while 85% of cases were driven by “family pressure.” Regarding forced labor, about one in eight of those affected were children and half of those in commercial sexual exploitation.
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Director-General Guy Rider of the U.N labor agency, which brings together workers, businesses, and governments, called for “an all-hands-on-deck approach” and said, “trade unions, employers’ groups, civil society and ordinary people all have critical roles to play.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.