Today is Freedom Sunday, 25 March 2007, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, and the focus of a new generation of campaigners against the modern slave trade. It coincides with the release of the film Amazing Grace recounting the life of William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a politician who became an evangelical Christian and then dedicated his life to a programme of social reforms, the most famous of which â€” and at the time the most unpopular and controversial â€” was the abolition of slavery.
Wilberforce stands as a powerful example to both Christians and to politicians. But it was not the example of Wilberforce, but direct contact with human trafficking, which brought me into politics.
During the late eightes and nineties, I worked in Belgium with an international Christian charity called Operation Mobilisation. As part of what I was doing, I began to work in pastoral counselling first with asylum seekers and then with victims of sex trafficking. I would like to be able to write that I helped thousands. In fact, the process of working with victims of sex trafficking is so slow, arduous, and, often, painful, that I was only able to work with a handful of those impacted.
In 1996 I left Belgium with a clear thought in my mind. I realised that I could work, very slowly, with individuals, one or two at a time, for the rest of my life. This would perhaps mean a great deal to those individuals, but, for every one I or others doing the same work helped, thousands more would get nothing. Worse, the kind of help that I and others could give was only available to those who had already escaped. We had nothing to offer those still trapped.
It’s estimated that 16 million people were sold into slavery over the 315 years of the North Atlantic slave trade. Some would question that figure, and suggest that it should be far higher. Higher or not, it was a crime against humanity perpertrated from these shores which dwarfs the crimes of Adolf Hitler. Today, the US state department estimates that 600,000-800,000 people are trafficked â€” sold into slavery â€” each year across the world. An older estimate by the United Nations set the figure at five million. Other estimates vary widely. The truth is no-one knows. Even if we take the lowest figure, it means that as many people are sold into modern slavery every twenty five years as during the entire history of the North Atlantic slave trade. Worse, an estimated 12.3 million people are held by forced labour, and 179 million children around the world are kept in the worst forms of child labour. 600,000. Five million. Twelve million. A hundred and seventy nine million. At the human level, these figures are beyond all comprehension.
If all the aid workers, charity workers, lobbyists, pressure group workers and politicians in the entire world were to try to work with one enslaved or trafficked person each, first to free them from their current position, and then to undertake the immeasurable harder task of restoring their human dignity, and preparing them to live and work as equals in an equal society â€” if all this was done at the rate of one per person per year, which would be a rapid rate â€” the task would never be finished. The scale of the crime dwarfs all of our efforts.
With this in mind, I realised that it was no longer enough to help people one by one out of the trap. It was â€” and is â€” time to harnass the full resources of society to do away with human trafficking altogether. Two years after leaving Belgium, I joined the Liberal Democrats, and announced my intention to stand for parliament. Since then, I have continued to argue, on platforms large and small, in public places and in back-rooms, with key political leaders and with grass-roots activists, that human compassion compels us to place this issue at the top of our political agenda.
I am not saying that the economy, terrorism, health, education and all those other things are not important. I am and always will be involved deeply in the detail of how we can run this country better at all levels. But, if there is a single gigantic reproach to the world we live in, it is the blight of the modern day slave trade.