Incredibly in the 21st century some Africans are still working in conditions akin to slavery informally or formally in some areas of the Middle East.
In Mauritania slavery, though officially illegal, remains a fact of life for an estimated 40,000 slaves. Mauritania is rarely mentioned in international media coverage. Conversely, across the Middle East – Qatar is set to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Despite repeated international campaigns, some Ghanaian workers there are making as little as $40 dollars a week while living in shared accommodation where employers are allowed to pack as many as four workers into a tiny room according to The Guardian. Terrorists groups around the region use sex slaves. Slavery, an old evil takes many forms.
Mauritania, a country with a population of 4 million, became the last country to ban slavery in 1983, though the practice has lingered through the present. In 2007, the practice was criminalized. Since slavery was criminalized, only one criminal conviction has taken place. Often living in near starvation conditions (one journalist reported seeing children eating sand) they have to also deal with the most hurtful forms of abuse.
“Female slaves, both women and girls, were routinely subjected to rape by their masters and forced to bear their children,” reads the 2017 U.S. State Department report on Mauritania. “There were cases in the past where female slaves attempted to prosecute their master. State prosecutors told victims that they could face charges for having children out of wedlock, using children produced from rape as a deterrent to prosecuting slavery.”
The Hratine ethnic group, who make up 40 percent of the country’s population are the entirety of its slave population. Not all Mauritanians are taking their plight laying down.
“The Hratine, sons and grandsons of the Black slave labor, became aware of their humanity, equivalent to that of the masters. Thus … grant(ing) us their votes in the polls,” said Biram Ould Dah Abeid, Mauritania’s best-known anti-slavery activist. “However, resistance to the liberating course of history is (opposed by) conservative segments of Arab-Berber society. The country remains under the domination of a militaro-tribal and affairist oligarchy, welded by the definitive feeling of its superiority.”
Dah Abeid was elected to parliament this year but, was soon imprisoned. Through an indermidiary Dah Abeid answered questions posed to him from the Urban News Service via his prison cell.
“We are supporting Biram Dah Abeid in Mauritania,” said Présidente Sylvie O’Dy, a former journalist and the chair of the Committee Against Modern Slavery (CCEM) based in France. “CCEM is supporting domestic slavery and forced labor victims in France and advocating against modern slavery worldwide.”
Complicating the fight against slavery is Mauritania is often a pawn in the geopolitical ambitions of other states. Last year Mauritania joined with several other African and Asian states in a Saudi led blockade of Qatar in order to persuade Qatar to end its practice of close ties with Hamas, the Taliban, and funding for Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
While number of Western non-government organizations are active in the country trying to defeat slavery and end poverty in Mauritania – Qatar’s efforts have often focused on Islamist charities and local affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood at a time when Mauritania is struggling to stamp out slavery.
In September, Mauritania’s government accused Qatar of supporting the local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood – “Tawasol,” which was legalized in 2007 – the same year that Mauritania criminalized slavery.
Biram Dah Abeid blames the international community and the Gulf states for the continuation of slavery in his country.
“Through petrodollars, important programs of Wahhabi obscurantism, which reinforces the ideology of religious extremism and enslaved practices that ensues. These partners – Saudi Arabia in the lead – import, from our country, especially girls, as domestic (workers) or concubines.”
One Mauritanian who succumbed to what Abeid calls “obscurantism” is Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, also known as Abu Hafs al-Muritani, who is a former member of Al Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda under Osama Bin Ladin and their allies, the Taliban, both used sex slaves, a practice that has been adopted by terrorist groups in Africa. Boko Haram, Al-Shabab and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb have all been documented for using slaves.
However, perhaps no labor situation has attracted the attention of labor groups more than that of the workers building the stadiums and supporting infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. An investigation released by The Guardian in November found that African guest workers from Ghana were forced to work for paltry salaries in the richest country in the world.
“For building one of the prestige stadiums designed so Qatar can dazzle the world in 2022, eight hours a day, six days a week, this is £140, a little under £35 per week; £5 per day,” the article stated. That roughly equivalent to $6.36 a day.
Ghanaian workers say that food, accommodations and laundry services are provided to “guest workers” but they are housed in rooms with some four people in a single room.
“(There are) 18,000 workers building the stadiums – less than 2 percent of Qatar’s construction workforce,” said Ahmed Benchemsi the Middle East spokesperson for Human Rights Watch.
An investigation published by Lebanese newspaper Daily Star titled "Bangladeshi Workers: 300 left to rot in a Qatar camp" detailed how Bangladeshi guest workers had been largely abandoned in a labor camp when their project was put on hold. Two meals a day were donated from a Qatari charity but, the site had no running water or electricity most hours of the day.
“The Qatari government has pledged to align its laws and practices with international labor standards through a program of cooperation with the International Labor Organization,” said Ahmed Benchemsi the Middle East spokesperson for Human Rights Watch. “However, the implementation of the promised reforms is taking a lot of time, and the government hasn’t published a timetable.”
Despite a recent labor reform, domestic staff who fear abuse must still get the permission of their employers to leave the country. Families who employ such workers often site potential thefts as one of the reasons they should control the movement of their guest workers. Much of the labor issues surrounding Qatar also apply to its neighboring states in the region.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup brought attention to human rights abuses in Russia. Many hope the hosting of the 2020 FIFA World Cup in Qatar will bring similar attention to Qatar and the region.