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From rescue to resilience: It’s time to reimagine anti-slavery work

By Jess Templeman, Director of Programmes at Arise

For most people ‘slavery’ is a historic problem, or something limited to the realms of horrific news stories and Hollywood movies. It does not encroach on our daily lives. Yet, neither of these characterisations are correct. It is estimated that more people are in slavery today than ever before in history: 40 million people. A quarter of these are children.

It is a crime that is present in every society, and unfortunately also most of our lives. If you have a smartphone, the mic that keeps it from overheating was likely mined by children in the Congo. If you are wearing cotton clothes, then the fabric likely was farmed through Uyghur forced labour and sewn together in sweatshops in Vietnam or Bangladesh. The tea you are drinking likely came from the tea gardens in northeast India, where whole families live in indentured servitude working for less than £5 a day.

Yet, the anti-slavery movement is also larger than ever; across the globe there are thousands of organisations working tirelessly to support victims and those at risk. Despite this we are in a worse place than ever before—and the trend is not going in the right direction.

So, why is this? As the Director of Programmes for Arise, a charity focused on local community prevention of modern slavery, I have spent a lot of time interrogating this question. I have come to three hard truths.

Firstly, we are collectively too focused on rescue. There are several reasons for this, but I believe that it mainly comes down to the fact that rescue is emotive. While rescue is important, it does not stem the tide—it can only react once someone has already suffered, rather than proactively preventing people from ever being enslaved. Prevention remains consistently underfunded.

Secondly, to our detriment, we are disproportionately centred in the West. From my own analysis, approximately 90% of international private anti-slavery donations go to large, western-based charities. When you consider governmental and international funding the situation is worse. While many of these organisations are doing important work and have brilliant resources, they are not best placed to address the conditions on the ground across the world where slavery comes possible.

Thirdly, and connected to the two previous points, we are not listening to those who are living and working in the communities that are most affected. My charity works in critical areas across the world; supporting and empowering local civil society organisations to bring sustainable change. For example, we aid initiatives that educate high-risk children, providing skills training or supporting rural villages to start their own community saving schemes. Yet we are in the minority; a common refrain, whether I am in India or Albania, is that local support networks do not have the resources to keep people away from exploitation and are often forced to support initiatives by charities based in other countries.

So, what can we as individuals and communities do? How can we help from London or wherever we might be based?

Firstly, we need to collectively re-frame our idea of what anti-slavery work is and look beyond metrics like ‘people rescued’ or the ‘number of sting operations’. Effective anti-slavery work is so much broader than this. It looks like awareness raising on safe employment, enabling children to go to school, providing skills training for viable local employment, providing access to healthcare, or helping people to access government schemes and services. This is preventive work, which when done in grassroots communities raises their resilience to resist the lure of traffickers.

Secondly, we need to form partnership around the globe. No single institution can solve the problem of slavery; networks and partnerships are key. People of faith are uniquely placed to respond to this. The international networks of believers and people of faith allow those with different perspectives, skills, and resources to be connected. But we must have the humility collectively to listen to those most affected and respond by supporting their initiatives rather than supplanting them with our own. Speak to the synagogue, church or faith community that you know are placed within affected communities; ask them what they need, how you can support and what you can give.

Finally, on a personal level, I would encourage everyone to be diligent in your own life. Educating yourself about the issues, learning what it looks like in London as well as abroad, does make a real difference. Researching supply chains in a couple of key areas, such as parts of your wardrobe or food, and resolving to buy only from ethical suppliers does have impact.

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