Issue II: Generations in Dialogue
II-07 | “Slavery is not a horror safely confined to the past”
An interview by Alexander Görlach
"Slavery is not a horror safely confined to the past"
Human trafficking is a business that is flourishing all over the world, even in Europe, because it has low risks and high profits, as Spanish social worker Alejandra Acosta explains. She is the founder of the organization “Break the Silence” that fights against trafficking and modern slavery.
Görlach: You dedicate your time and work to combat human trafficking. How did you find this calling?
Acosta: I found this calling when I was 18 years old and heard for the first time the testimony of a human trafficking victim and I decided that I did not want to be indifferent, so I started to study about the problem and I realized that in Spain there was a great lack of information about the problem and that made impossible to implement solutions, because to change things you first have to understand them.
Therefore, I founded Break The Silence, the organization that I have been leading for 6 years and that is dedicated to raising awareness in civil society, public administration and the private sector in order to generate solutions to help end exploitation in Spain and Europe.
Görlach: You are also concerned with what you call modern day slavery. How do you define this?
Acosta: Slavery is not a horror safely confined to the past; it continues to exist throughout the world, even in developed countries like France and the United States. Across the world slaves work and sweat and build and suffer. Slaves in Pakistan may have made the shoes you are wearing and the carpet you stand on. Slaves in the Caribbean may have put sugar in your kitchen and toys in the hands of your children. In India they may have sewn the shirt on your back and polished the ring on your finger. They are paid nothing.
And this is the definition of human trafficking: the unlawful act of transporting or coercing people in order to benefit from their work or service, typically in the form of forced labor or sexual exploitation.
Therefore, my work against human trafficking is also a work to combat modern slavery, because they are the same thing.
Görlach: One might read in the news about this topic and being inclined to think that this is something far away, but not at all: it is happening in Europe too. Could you share your insights with us?
Acosta: According to International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates, between 2012 and 2016 around 89 million persons globally experienced some form of exploitation, for periods of time ranging from a few days to the whole five years.
According to the UNODC Global Trafficking in Persons report 2020, in 2018, 65 % of all victims of trafficking in persons detected globally were women and girls, while 35 % were men and boys. Female victims continue to be the worst affected by trafficking, yet it appears that over the last 15 years the number of men, boys, and girls detected has risen more than that of women: the share of adult women fell from over 70 % in 2004 to under 50 % in 2018. In contrast, there has been an alarming upward trend in trafficking in children, as the proportion of child victims increased during the same period from 13 % to 34 %, i.e. over a third of all detected victims.
The data collected for the EU by the European Commission show a similar picture. According to the latest 2020 report, in the 2017-2018 period, women and girls represented the largest proportion of ‘registered or presumed’ victims – 71 % in the EU-27. Children accounted for nearly a quarter (21 %), of which the vast majority were girls (78 %). Girls represented 17 % of all registered victims and adult women – 54 %, while male victims made up less than a quarter of the total (18 % for men and 4 % for boys).
Although it is not a new phenomenon, human trafficking has taken on new dimensions in the context of globalization and has been facilitated by increased mobility, especially in the EU, and the development of the internet and new technologies. Among the reasons why human trafficking is an ever more flourishing business is the fact that it involves low risks and brings in high profits. As victims, through fear or shame, tend not to declare themselves to the authorities, traffickers are hardly ever prosecuted and the real number of victims is difficult to establish.
„What research reveals, according to a report by the A21 campaign, is that human trafficking occurs in all countries of the world, in all political models of countries and in all economic structures.”
Görlach: Europe prides itself to be the beacon of human rights in today’s world. What steps would the European Union have to undertake in order to end modern day slavery as much as human trafficking on its soil?
Acosta: I strongly believe in the unifying and supportive work of the European Union, but unfortunately human rights are often not mandatory issues for countries as we see in the case of the refugee crisis or human trafficking, because in many EU countries including Spain, we do not have legislation to address the problem of trafficking, because the member states are not required to have these laws to belong to the EU.
Forcing countries to have regulations that respect international standards such as the Palermo Protocol and the Convention on Human Rights would give NGOs and especially victims, many guarantees, and a framework under which to ask for help, since the lack of legislation and economic funds for this group of people prevents them from accessing justice properly and receiving help if they report a situation of exploitation.
Görlach: In the democratic world there are ways to influence politics and change the course. How is this possible to combat slavery and human trafficking in autocratic countries or dictatorships?
Acosta: Unfortunately, there are no statistics or studies that show that human trafficking occurs more in dictatorships than in democracies.
What research reveals, according to a report by the A21 campaign, is that human trafficking occurs in all countries of the world, in all political models of countries and in all economic structures.
However, living in a democracy allows more space to demand the fulfillment of human rights and to hold authorities accountable and therefore, it is more likely that these rights violations will be reduced over time in democracies if society unites and demands more rights for people vulnerable to fall into situations of exploitation.
Görlach: How can religious institutions, orders and congregations help in this dire situation?
Acosta: Religious institutions have had great influence in the fight for human rights throughout history and with the problem of human trafficking was not going to be different.
The first times I heard about the problem of human trafficking, it was in my church and in fact, I believe that the role of religious institutions is fundamental in the fight against trafficking because they are communities that are practically in every neighborhood and that have a transformative potential to inform about human trafficking and be a point of reference and support for potential victims of trafficking in the cities.
„I could not have achieved all the impact I have generated if I did not work with colleagues and mentors from other generations.”
Görlach: As this year’s conference is on how the young and older generations can work together to build a better work. How do you work on your topics inter-generationally?
Acosta: All my anti-trafficking work is intergenerational because it was thanks to mentors and people with much more experience than me that I have been able to build my organization and reach more than 80,000 people, including 12,000 youth with information and tools to prevent human trafficking in their environment.
I could not have achieved all the impact I have generated if I did not work with colleagues and mentors from other generations where we are constantly networking and bringing out different points of view.
Moreover, although it is to said that the future belongs to the young, I believe that we all build the future together and that is the only way to make it truly sustainable and leave no one behind.
Görlach: How do you as a young person see the controversy around “boomers” and Gen Z, Gen Y? Is it really that confrontational or are there common grounds on which both sides could and should work to understand each other better?
Acosta: I think the media and social networks generate a lot of polarization on this issue that in reality is not as extreme as it seems. Of course, due to the context in which we were born, both generations have very different ways of doing things, but in many occasions we are pursuing the same goals.
Therefore, I believe that we should provide more spaces for the exchange of intergenerational experiences, and it should also be common in any organization to intentionally seek to have people from different generations in the teams, as this brings collective value and shortens the gap and generational differences, because there is much more that unites us than what separates us.
Alejandra Acosta is a social worker specialized in international development. She is the founder of the non-profit organization Break The Silence, a project to raise awareness against the problem of human trafficking in Spain that impacts more than 20,000 people every year.
She is the sustainable development representative for the United Nations Foundation in Spain, a position that only 13 activists in the world hold every two years. Alejandra also represents the country in national and international forums such as TED, the Vatican Leaders Symposium or the United Nations General Assembly.