This weekend throughout the South, African Americans will gather at festivals, picnics and other events to observe Juneteenth, a celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The term "Juneteenth" comes from the date June 19, 1865, when enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas, found out that they were free a full 2½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation became official.
For 30 long months, the enslaved Texans continued to toil, unaware that technically they were free to stop and pursue their destinies. Their official status as free Americans meant nothing until Juneteenth came around.
Unfortunately, for millions of people around the world today — and thousands in the United States — their official status as free people also means nothing. That's because in various forms, the involuntary servitude of human beings — slavery — still exists.
The case of an Atlanta woman convicted on June 10 of enslaving two people who shared her Nigerian heritage shows how persistent the problem remains, even in the 21st century. Bidemi Bello was found guilty of luring women into bondage after offering them jobs as nannies and the opportunity to be educated in the U.S.
She brought them into the country on fake passports, and once they were here, she subjected them to beatings and inhumane conditions while forcing them to clean and provide child care at homes in upscale enclaves north of Atlanta. Unfortunately, this type of crime isn't an isolated incident, nor is it limited to any particular community.
A Global Impact
According to the United Nations, there are an estimated 27 million people enslaved around the world — women, children and men who are brutally forced to work without pay under the threat of beatings, rape and murder if they try to escape. Although slavery is not legal anywhere, it's a booming criminal industry that is happening everywhere.
"For perpetrators of human trafficking, this is a business, so they've learned to be smart about it," Jill Morris, constituency director of the Not For Sale Campaign, told The Root. "Like any other organized crime, they've learned how to hide and form covert networks. They also have a lot of money and power, so in certain parts of the world they can buy off authorities."
Unlike the historic chattel system, modern-day slavery takes on various, subtler forms — another factor that makes it difficult to detect and stop. The most widely practiced kind, especially prevalent in Southeast Asia, is debt bondage in which people must pay off loans with labor instead of currency. But with high interest rates and new debts incurred by food and shelter, many of these workers toil in bondage their entire lives and pass their "debt" on for several generations.
Sex trafficking involves women and children forced into prostitution. The human-trafficking industry generates an estimated $32 billion a year. Millions of other victims are lured, with false promises of good jobs, into forced labor, working for zero pay in hazardous conditions. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to this form of slavery, trafficked into a range of industries including mining, farming, textiles and domestic work.
Many Americans conceptualize modern-day slavery as a problem only in foreign countries. We recall images of young girls forced into brothels in Cambodia and Russia, or men mining for profitable metal in the Congo. But according to the U.S. State Department, between 14,500 and 17,000 people are trafficked in the United States each year.
In the State Department's 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, an annual assessment of human trafficking around the world, the United States was included for the first time. "This human rights abuse is universal, and no one should claim immunity from its reach or from the responsibility to confront it," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in a letter upon the release of the report, which describes the United States as a source of and destination for victims, who are either trafficked in from other countries or taken advantage of because of uncertain immigration status.
Young girls and women have been forced into prostitution in cities from Atlanta to Los Angeles, enslaved farmworkers have been found picking tomatoes in Florida, and men and women have been discovered in bondage as domestic workers in hotels and restaurants all over the country.
"A lot of times, victims are trafficked in from other countries, so they don't speak the language. They're in fear for their lives, their safety and their families back home," said Morris, adding that many forced laborers in restaurants and hotels are kept away from customers, where no one ever sees them. "It's super hidden. Because people don't know to look for it or ask certain questions, the perpetrators are able to get away with it."
Victims of sexual trafficking in the United States, however, also include American girls, with most victims under the age of 18. They are often coerced into prostitution by someone they know. "There are boyfriends, fathers and brothers forcing these young girls to prostitute themselves so they can make a profit. It's not typically a stranger kidnapping a girl off the street," said Morris.
The most vulnerable victims are people in poverty, and the issue crosses all racial barriers. Girls and women from middle-class communities, however, have also been forced into sexual slavery.
One reason slavery persists in the United States is that the general public doesn't think it can happen here, so they turn a blind eye to the problem. Activist groups like Not for Sale educate citizens about the signs to look for in their communities, and what to do. They also work with local governments and police forces to raise awareness of the issue.
Those efforts are paying off. This year, 12 states — including Georgia, Texas, Massachusetts, Arizona and Virginia — passed strong anti-human-trafficking laws. "States are passing laws in all different areas of human trafficking, from dealing with sex trafficking to supply-chain transparency," Morris said.
On a global level, different countries are also starting to look into the issue. "More importantly, we've seen corporations think about their supply chain — for example, where the cotton comes from for the blue jeans they make," said Morris. "That changes the demographic not only for the consumer but for the workers in factories and manufacturers as well. We're starting to see the entire global trafficking industry wake up."