24 Jun 2024

Modern slavery risks rise as greatest number of global conflicts since WWII

There needs to be more action to prevent modern slavery in conflict-affected areas.

Children in the damaged building located in Benghazi’s Old Town on January 31,2019 in Libya. Photo Credit: Giles Clarke/UNOCHA via Getty Images.

There are currently 56 active conflicts, which is the most since the end of World War II. This is reported in the Global Peace Index 2024 (GPI) released by the Institute for Economics and Peace.

Over 95 million people are now either refugees or have been internally displaced because of violent conflict. We now have 16 countries where more than 5% of the population has been forcibly displaced leaving millions vulnerable to abuse.

The significant gap between humanitarian support and preventing modern slavery must be addressed as conflict and instability increase globally.

How does conflict increase modern slavery?

A soldier gets off from an armoured personnel carrier parked outside the Central Bank of Myanmar, as people gather to protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar on February 15, 2021. Photo Credit: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

The breakdown of law and order helps to allow perpetrators to act without fear of punishment.

For people living in conflict areas, they can experience situations of modern slavery through various paths, including:

  • Being targeted by traffickers along their journey while attempting to escape.
  • Not receiving the protection needed from modern slavery at displacement sites, such as camps.
  • Being forcibly recruited to fight, forcibly married to fighters, or forced to perform labour or sexual services.
  • Children being forced to marry as a method of protecting them against sexual violence by armed groups or due to extreme economic insecurity.

What do conflict and modern slavery look like around the world?

A “supermoon” shines as a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter gunner scans the desert while transporting troops on May 26, 2021 over north-eastern Syria. Photo Credit: John Moore/Getty Images.

There are now more countries than ever involved in conflicts outside their own borders, with 92 countries involved in an external conflict in 2022.

Our 2023 Global Slavery Index (GSI) found countries with protracted conflicts have some of the highest levels of overall vulnerability to modern slavery and high prevalence.

These countries include Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, and Libya. These estimates are likely conservative, due to the difficulties in surveying conflict-affected areas.

Since the GSI was published, global peacefulness has declined. The main reason for this latest fall in peacefulness is the ongoing violence in Ukraine and Gaza.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Interestingly, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine inevitably increased the risks of modern slavery, an increase in the official number of victims identified has not been observed.

Experts suggest this could be due to several reasons: for example, through the work of the Global Protection Cluster, this was the first conflict where an anti-trafficking response was embedded in the humanitarian response from the outset. Other factors include that the Ukrainian government remained functioning and the Temporary Protection Directive was activated in the EU to quickly provide effective assistance to Ukrainians fleeing the violence.

Other stakeholders caution that the real rates of modern slavery are likely higher than the numbers detected, due to stretched resources, people lacking access to first responders in areas experiencing active conflict, or underreporting.

Internal conflict and modern slavery

Deaths from internal conflict have increased by over 475 per cent in the past 17 years.

People fleeing violence do not need to cross borders to experience the heightened risks of modern slavery. Modern slavery is common among Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Experiences of modern slavery were characteristically violent and often perpetrated by armed groups to further the conflict.

More information about IDPs is available in the No Escape report from 2022.

Integrating anti-slavery action into humanitarian response

A woman lights a candle during easter church service at the St. Michaels Golden-Domed Cathedral on April 24, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo Credit: Alexey Furman/Getty Images.

Walk Free has supported the development of the Global Protection Cluster’s 2020 Guidance to support Protection Clusters to address the gap in humanitarian response to prevent modern slavery.

This detects, identifies, refers, protects, and assists trafficked persons in internal displacement settings (An Introductory Guide to Anti-Trafficking Action in Internal Displacement Contexts).

Read the recommendations for humanitarian actors
  1. Mainstream protection through the lens of slavery-related exploitation across the humanitarian architecture.
  2. Provide needs-based, protection-specific assistance in areas of high displacement to reduce risk factors and vulnerability to slavery-related exploitation.
  3. Activate specific and safe referral and incident reporting mechanisms.
  4. Provide foundational capacity-building to front-line humanitarian actors on concepts of modern slavery.
  5. Undertake strategic communications and awareness-raising with populations at high risk of displacement, through a whole of community approach.
  6. Strengthen the evidence base on forced labour, human trafficking, and other protection issues in humanitarian settings.
  7. Activate accountability and justice mechanisms for victims and survivors.
  8. Implement the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children’s recommendation of early warning and early screening frameworks for potential or imminent risk of trafficking, especially in managed camps.

You can read the Global Peace Index 2024 by the Institute for Economics and Peace.