‘Five Ukranian women who were tortured and imprisoned in a basement by sex traffickers in Turkey [have been] freed thanks to … the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’. So ran a newspaper item last summer.
The paper continued: ‘The women – one of whom was held for six years – were set to return to Ukraine after being rescued by Turkish police following a call to the “157” hotline, which is run by the IOM’.
The women were forced into prostitution, tortured with boiling oil and kept in a windowless basement near the southern resort town of Antalya. However, one managed to call the hotline using a mobile telephone belonging to a client or trafficker, and they were freed on 1 August.
Sander Lindstrom of IOM (a United Nations agency) said, ‘Our greatest concern is that these cases taken together may represent a new level of cruelty and torture inflicted on trafficked individuals’.
The Washington Timesalso reported this year that, ‘Thousands of people who leave their homeland for work in the Persian Gulf end up as modern-day slaves. As many as 800,000 men, women and children are sent to other countries, often under fraudulent means, to be used in forced labor or otherwise exploited’.
When we hear the word ‘slavery’ most of us think of the African slave trade abolished in the early 1800s. We think of people being bought, sold and shipped from one continent to another – part of our history rather than our present. But the tragic reality is that slavery is alive and well today.
Millions of men, women and children around the world live in bondage. Although this exploitation is not always called slavery, the conditions are the same. People are sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay, and are at the mercy of their ’employers’.
Slavery is illegal in most of the countries where it is practised. It is also prohibited by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.
But in spite of these ‘safeguards’ women from Eastern Europe are bonded into prostitution; children are trafficked between West African countries; and men are forced to work as slaves on Brazilian agricultural estates.
Who are slaves today?
Contemporary slavery takes many forms and affects people of every age, sex and race. So-called ‘bonded labour’ affects at least 20 million people around the world. People become bonded labourers by taking (or being tricked into taking) a loan, sometimes for as little as the cost of medicine for a sick child.
To work off the loan they are forced to work long hours, seven days a week and up to 365 days a year. They receive basic food and shelter as ‘payment’ for their work, but may never earn enough to pay off the debt – which can then be passed on from generation to generation.
Another example is ‘forced marriage’. This affects women and girls who are married without choice, often when very young, and forced into lives of servitude commonly accompanied by physical violence.
Thirdly, ‘forced labour’ involves people who are illegally recruited by individuals, governments or political parties and forced to work – usually under threat of violence or other penalties.
Fourthly, ‘slavery by descent’ is where people are either born into a slave class or belong to a social group treated by others as slave labour (like certain ‘lower’ castes in India, for instance).
Finally, the worst forms of ‘child labour’ affect an estimated 179 million children around the world, who are compelled to do work that harms their health and welfare.
Slavery of the mind
Slavery is probably far more pervasive than we think. It is not just the chains of physical oppression that ensnare humanity. There are other more subtle types of bondage – ideascan also bind men cruelly.
Such ideas can spread like mental viruses – reaching epidemic proportions and producing symptoms that may cause the sufferer to take his own life or the lives of others. Suicide bombers, driven by evil ideologies, are a case in point.
However, terrorism is just an extreme example of a far more general phenomenon. There are less obvious mental viruses that enslave people just as much. A great deal of pain and heartache is caused by common ideas and perceptions – the way we view ourselves and others. Racial discrimination and conflict is an example, where people despise other races and cultures or feel threatened by them.
Damaged thinking is also responsible for depression, broken relationships, social unrest and even wars. Our minds are in chains.
Freed by truth
The Bible recognises that humanity is enslaved by its ideas (our minds are ‘blinded’, 2 Corinthians 4:4) – not just by ideas on a superficial level but by the very way we think.
Human nature is in slavery to sin (Romans 6:17) and this is why there is so much wrong with the world. Because we no longer think and behave according to our Maker’s instructions, things have gone very wrong.
Jesus said, ‘Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin’. But he could also say to those who believed in him, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:30-36). In other words, we can be freed from this slavery through faith in Jesus Christ.
The Bible uses the word ‘redeemed’ to describe this liberation from sin – a word employed in the Roman slave markets when a benefactor bought slaves and set them free.
Because we have broken God’s law, a price must be paid for our wrongdoing. Jesus paid that price by dying on the cross for us – to redeem us from our bondage. By turning to God and trusting in Christ we can be forgiven and set free.
The Bible puts it thus: ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ’ (Romans 3:23-24).
Every form of slavery needs to be addressed in our world, but that must include the bondage of hearts and minds that, in the end, is the ultimate cause of all slavery and oppression.