By Kieran Guilbert and Anuradha Nagaraj
DAKAR/CHENNAI, India, Nov 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Obstacles as formidable as government policies and as basic as family ties undermine the global fight against human trafficking, allowing millions of desperate people to be driven into slavery, leading campaigners will warn on Wednesday.
Those who aim to help trafficking victims are not safe either, according to prominent campaigners speaking at Trust Women, an annual women's rights and human trafficking conference run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Nearly 46 million people globally live as slaves, forced to work, sold for sex, trapped in debt bondage or born into servitude, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index by rights group Walk Free Foundation.
"Slavery is a cancer that is spreading across the world," said Mauritanian politician Biram Dah Abeid, head of the anti-slavery Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, who will speak at the opening of the two-day event.
Rigid immigration policies in Europe, closed borders in countries such as the Balkan states and anti-migrant sentiment makes people vulnerable to forced servitude, said Abeid.
"This drives desperate people, those who face persecution, natural disasters, poverty and war, to throw themselves into clandestine networks, where they risk becoming slaves," he said.
In Mauritania, some 43,000 people, or about 1 percent of the population, live as slaves, according to the slavery index. Yet other estimates put the number as high as 20 percent.
The remote Islamic republic and poor desert nation, which straddles the Arab Maghreb and black sub-Saharan Africa, was the last country to abolish slavery in 1981.
Its Haratin minority, who make up the main "slave caste", are descended from black Africans. Most do not know a life outside of servitude exists, according to Abeid.
"Mauritania has an unofficial apartheid led by the Arab-Berbers, who enforce slavery," Abeid said. "Their power is based on ethnicity ... black is a synonym for slave."
Abeid, freed this year from 18 months in jail after being arrested during an anti-slavery march in 2014, was born to slaves and should have faced a life of servitude.
But while his mother was pregnant, her master became ill and released her unborn child from slavery in an act of charity, suggested by a Koranic teacher, to gain favour with God.
REFUSING TO GIVE EVIDENCE
In places such as Nepal, family loyalty thwarts the fight against trafficking when victims sold into slavery by relatives refuse to give evidence against them, according to Nepal's leading anti-trafficking judge.
Tek Narayan Kunwar said people may change their testimony to save fathers, brothers or brothers-in-law from going to prison.
"In a way they are dependent on these very people for their sustenance and worry their economic condition will further worsen if they testify against them and send them to prison," he said.
About 229,000 people are trapped in some form of slavery in Nepal, according to the index, with the film "Sold" starring actress Gillian Anderson about a Nepali girl sold into the sex trade to be shown at the conference involving 600 delegates.
Campaigners said the devastating earthquakes in Nepal last year, which killed about 9,000 people and destroyed about one million homes, left many people with no means of income and led to an increase in children and women being trafficked.
Kunwar added better cross-border cooperation is needed to tackle human trafficking, an industry now estimated to be worth about $150 billion a year. India, for instance, is the biggest market for women being trafficked in Nepal, he said.
Progress is being made, although it is spotty, he said.
Nepal strengthened its anti-trafficking law in 2007. However its implementation remains uneven, with most victims being women and children from rural areas with limited access to resources and little knowledge of the legal process.
Mauritania passed a law last year making slavery a crime against humanity and doubling the jail term to 20 years, but it is rarely enforced and just appeases foreign aid donors, said Abeid, who ran for president in 2014 and will again in 2019.
But Kunwar said he worries for the security of those who fight trafficking, a lucrative black market industry.
"Many people working on anti-trafficking are not safe. Many complain to me that they are intimidated and that there is political interference during investigations because the perpetrators are powerful and connected," he said.
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert and Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)