Where Slavery Survives

Keri Heath looks at the thriving slave trade in Mauritania, and the seeming indifference of the international community.[br]TODAY, the word “slavery” brings to mind the historic industry, which transported people across vast stretches of ocean and which sparked bloody wars. It conjures up old images of individuals in chains. But agricultural slavery is still very much alive in the desert of Mauritania.The small country on the west coast of Africa officially abolished slavery in 1981. This made Mauritania the last country in the world to do so. In 2007, slavery was officially criminalized. But according to Anti-Slavery, a British NGO that fights slavery across the world, an estimated 18% of the Mauritanian population – that’s 600,000 people – are still affected by slavery. However, no definitive studies have been carried out to date.
“18% of the Mauritanian population – 600,000 people – is still affected by slavery”
In the past few decades, a few abolition organisations have emerged within Mauritania. One such NGO is Initiative pour la Résurgence du Mouvement Abolitionniste, a group that provides free legal aid to slaves and tries to build cases against slave masters. Biram Dah Abeid, the president of the organisation, was just released from prison last May, after serving a year and a half in prison for “illegal assembly and rebellion.”Before his arrest, Dah Abeid received an award from Front Line Defenders, an organization that works to protect activists across the world. Erin Kilbride is the Media Coordinator for the organization.“Western conceptions of slavery have to do with transnational human trafficking,” Kilbride said. “We think of slave ships from Europe and what is now the United States going over and literally stealing human beings. In Mauritania, it’s at least partially or at least largely a domestic issue.”
“The victims of the crime don’t know what their rights are”
Kilbride said one of the biggest problems Dah Abeid’s organisation faces is educating the slaves themselves about their rights. Mauritania is composed of several ethnic groups. Typically, the lighter skinned white Moors enslave the darker skinned black Moors, black Africans, and Haratine caste. Many individuals in these groups live somewhere between slavery and freedom.“The government is saying it is very hard to eradicate something if the victims of that crime don’t know what their rights are,” Kilbride said, “but that argument is completely washed away by the fact that they’re imprisoning human rights defenders who are fighting against those problems.”Because of the historic nature of the slavery issue in Mauritania, a practice that has been carried out since up to 2,000 years ago, this social education is crucial in ending the issue. Ide Corley is an English professor at Maynooth University and has researched the historic African and Atlantic slave trade. She said understanding the mental bondage is just as important as learning about the physical.
“What makes slavery different is the natal alienation of the slave”
“What makes slavery different from other forms of serfdom or servitude or debt bondage is… the natal alienation of the slave,” Corley said. “The slave was… divorced from his or her parents…from all legally enforced ties of blood, alienated from any attachment to particular groups of people, like nation or tribe, and also from their own locality.”According to Anti-Slavery, the landscape of Mauritania also makes it difficult for slaves to escape. Vast stretches of desert leave enslaved people dependent on their masters for food and shelter. In addition, Anti-Slavery’s website points out that “those in slavery are told that their paradise is bound to their master and that if they do what their master tells them, they will go to heaven.”Kilbride at Front Line Defenders pointed to lack of media attention as the reason this issue has not been made widely known in western countries. Jonathan Hill, a professor at King’s College London who studies postcolonialism and the politics of North Africa, indicated similar reasons.
“Those in slavery are told that their paradise is bound to their master and that if they do what their master tells them, they will go to heaven”
“It is the forgotten country,” Hill said. “The country has a degree of importance to western governments who are willing to tolerate or turn a blind eye to certain practices, but to the wider global community… I think internationally, there’s just a lack of interest.”It’s important, Hill said, because Mauritania is often used as a spring board for migrants from southern Africa trying to reach Europe. He said that by stopping migrants in North Africa, Europe can find some relief to its migrant crisis. Current Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz came to power in 2008 in a military coup, and Hill said that he appears secure in his position.“The current regime, like a lot of authoritarian leaders, leads essentially a negotiation with the power brokers in the country,” Hill said, “so I don’t think it’s going to challenge significantly those groups that have an interest in perpetuating the status quo.”Besides Dah Abeid’s organisation, a few other abolitionist groups exist in Mauritania, including S.O.S. Escalves and Association Mauritaniennes des Droits de l’Homme. As of May of 2016, only two instances of criminal prosecution against slave owners have occurred.