Sunday, April 22, 2001

Student raises awareness of world slavery

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        OXFORD — A Miami University student's outrage over modern slavery has developed into a national fight.

        Abbey Steele, a senior and political science major from North Olmsted, Ohio, organized the first chapter of Free the Slaves last fall. The international organization's first college chapter was also its first chapter anywhere.

        “There's more slavery right now than at any other time in history,” Ms. Steele said. “We don't even know the extent to which slavery supports the global economy. In the U.S., we think slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, but it has evolved. It's hard to say where it's the worst in the world because there are so many different forms, including economic and personal.”

        In Africa last week, United Nations officials said 31 children were taken from a boat and placed in homes in the African nation of Benin. Authorities believe smugglers intended to sell the children as unpaid domestics and plantation workers along the African coast.

        Free the Slaves, formed by professor Kevin Bales of the University of Surrey, Roehampton, in London, is a sister group to Anti-Slavery International, one of the world's early human-rights groups. The plight of modern slaves is discussed in Dr. Bales' book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.

        “After reading it last year, I e-mailed Dr. Bales and asked him to come to Miami to speak,” Ms. Steele said. “He replied enthusiastically. Two hundred people came to hear him, which is great by Miami standards. We formed a friendship and working relationship.”

        Today, 10 students work with the group on campus. Six other people work with the group nationally. When Ms. Steele graduates next month, she'll move to Washington, D.C., to organize other campus chapters.

        She said bondage — indebtedness of a family to a landowner — is probably the biggest slavery problem, especially in parts of Asia.

        “They can never get out of debt,” she said. “The entire family must give themselves over. They have no recourse. They live and work on the land. The owner charges them for a bowl of rice and so the cost keeps increasing.”

        Ms. Steele, 21, is active in more than academics. She was one of 85 students recognized in USA Today's recent All-USA College Academic Team competition. Participants were judged on leadership, grades, activities, and how students use intellectual skills outside the classroom.

        She is a semifinalist for a 2001 British Marshall Scholarship and a Fulbright School Award to conduct research into modern slavery in Colombia.

        “Across the world, the sex trade is incredibly profitable,” she said. “The U.N. estimates that it brings in $7 billion a year, only behind the sales of arms and drugs.”

        Ms. Steele invited Dr. Bales to return to Miami on Wednesday to speak on the new abolition movement and slavery's connection to modern life. While on extended leave, the sociology professor lives in Mississippi and advises the United Nations on contemporary slavery issues. He is an American by birth.

        He said slaves live in nearly every country. The Central Intelligence Agency estimates that 45,000 people come to the U.S. every year as prostitutes, servants and sweatshop workers, he said. (For details, see the group's Internet site.)

        “American citizens participate in slavery without really knowing it,” he said. “We buy products made by slaves. I don't think it will be as hard to eradicate it as it seems. All the countries have made slavery illegal. There are 27 million slaves but they generate only a tiny drop in the ocean of the world's economy.

        “It's all about enforcement and we need resources to lead enforcement. If we spent only a fraction of what we spend on the war on drugs, we'd see an end to slavery.”

        Ms. Steele said the reaction on campus to her group is one of shock.

        “Students can't believe slavery still exists,” she said. “I still have people coming up to me saying, "Aren't you the anti-slavery girl?' People are amazed. They are also impressed enough to want to join. We hope this will turn into activism.”

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