Seeing the Slaves in Our Midst (Op-Ed by Ambassador Robert Jackson)

Seeing the Slaves in Our Midst
By Robert P. Jackson, U.S. Ambassador to Ghana

Frederick Douglass, the revered former slave turned abolitionist and orator, once wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

That quote has resonated with me since the release of the disturbing video of slave auctions in Libya. I cannot fathom the desperation that fuels these dangerous journeys. Those who return to their home countries — whether they were held in detention camps or were subjected to the degradation of being auctioned off for forced labor — will undoubtedly need support and rehabilitation to overcome what they endured.

Growing up in America, we learn that the British passed their Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed many of the slaves in America 30 years later. And when the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution was ratified in 1865, slavery was abolished. A disgraceful period in American history had come to an end. Most importantly, Americans believed that never again would human beings be held against their will in humiliating, harmful, crushing slave labor.

Unfortunately, that part was not true. It is less true now than ever before: In sheer numbers, there are more slaves in the world today than at any point in history — in the United States, in Libya, in Ghana, in every country in the world. The evil of slavery persists.

The video from Libya is particularly horrifying because it brings to life the drawings we have seen in museums and in our textbooks from years ago: Africans, far from home, put on display, treated as nothing more than merchandise. It forces us to confront the truth that slavery is alive and well around the world.

There is an even more uncomfortable truth we must confront: Slavery is alive and well in our own communities.

As we consider how to address the migrant crisis, we must also remember the slaves who are quietly bought and sold every day, in every country. No gavel, no auctioneer, no crowd. Just a man responding to an advertisement for a construction job — with a visa, guaranteed. A girl moving to the city, looking for housekeeping or portering work. A child sent to live with an uncle, expecting to attend school. They are right under our noses, if only we will see them.

Each one of these individuals deserves the opportunity to live in dignity and follow their dreams, but it is the enslaved children who haunt me most of all. In the United States, we know children are enslaved in the commercial sex industry and in sectors such as agriculture, food service, and health and beauty. Over the past two years, I’ve seen firsthand the extent of the situation in Ghana. In the Volta Region, five children can be purchased to work on fishing boats for the price of one outboard motor. I have met children who were sold to work with fisherfolk for 100 cedis. In brothels, women and girls are forever scarred by the sexual abuse they are forced to endure. Wealthy aunties and uncles take child relatives into their homes, but deprive them of their right to education and force them to work as domestic servants. All these situations are intolerable and unacceptable.

I agree with Frederick Douglass that if we do not dedicate ourselves to building strong children, we make them vulnerable to abuse and indignities that will eventually require even greater efforts to repair them: mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Without hope, without opportunity, we condemn them to a life of desperate choices. Or even worse, the neglect and alienation leads them to become perpetrators themselves, continuing the cycle of abuse and hopelessness for generations.

Whether driven by desperation or depravity, failure to protect, educate and nurture children deprives all of us of their talents and contributions. It is a worldwide problem with worldwide ramifications. We need an educated global populace to tackle complex, shared problems. We need a healthy populace to produce the goods and services for our everyday lives. We need a hopeful populace, one that sees possibilities and creates opportunities, to counter the hateful narratives peddled by extremists.

January 1 will mark 155 years since Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. As we enter the New Year, my wish is for each of us to see — to really see — those around us, and to recognize the warning signs of trafficking and enslavement. Notice unusual behavior. Ask questions about that child travelling unaccompanied on a bus who looks scared and confused, serving dinner at an acquaintance’s home, or working in a bar or a restaurant: Are they in school? Are they in loving homes? Are they being given the chance to be children? Who is responsible for them? And ask about the neighbor leaving the community — or the country — for that dream job: Who is offering this opportunity? Does it sound too good to be true?

As I think back over the years — through high school, college and throughout my adult life — I wonder how many victims I unknowingly came in contact with before I understood the scale of the problem. You can make a difference in their lives, and possibly be the difference between freedom and slavery. In fact, Ghana’s Human Trafficking Act actually requires that we all report information on human trafficking to the authorities.

Harriet Tubman, the American hero who escaped slavery herself and then led numerous missions to free others, said, “I have heard their groans and sighs, and seen their tears, and I would give every drop of blood in my veins to free them.”

We’ve seen the videos. We’ve heard the stories. What will we do to free them?

Not all modern slaves are auctioned off, but they are bought and sold, all the same — and it is each one of us who pays the price.