Geography and Modern Slavery

Mark Altaweel


Modern slavery exists in the form of people trafficking and work situations where individuals become entrapped. While universally such actions are criminal, combating and understanding how it develops requires a geographic and social perspective.

Human geographers have looked at the intersection of modern economics, neoliberal capitalism, geography, and immigration as factors that facilitate where human trafficking and slavery may become evident.

Destinations that usually lead or have the highest rate of human trafficking include the Middle East, Western Europe, and North and Central America. In all of these cases, it is the economic systems and labor practices for local and migratory workers that create the possibility of enslavement.

Geographic and Social Factors of Human Slavery

A more detailed study, utilizing multivariate regression, showed, however, other underlying factors. The study in Europe determined that state stability, levels of freedom of speech, access to financial services, geography and age also have a major influence on modern enslavement.[1]

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For some countries, geography has a major role in making them transit locations, as they provide access where migrants seek to enter larger markets. However, these factors still generally intersect with applied anti-trafficking laws and how well they are enforced in relation to transit countries.[2]

Precarity and Human Slavery

Precarity is also an important concept for the types of social classes that may become enslaved, where such individuals are often on the margin of society due to their legal statues or economic and social wellbeing.

The greatest focus has been in the northern hemisphere, or Global North, where conditions are most likely to lead to precarity and what might be termed as hyper-precarity in more extreme cases.[3] Modern labor practice influences precarity, where less stable work environments for those who are not properly documented are more likely to be entrapped in a slave-like environment.

Countries that also have very restrictive migratory policies have also been found to encourage modern slavery practice, as it creates the legal environment that makes those in the precarious category to not seek more official channels for support.[4] What these studies show is that modern slavery is not simply determined by economic factors but the intersection of various, geographic-based influences.

Global Slavery Index Map

The Global Slavery Index (GSI) seeks to estimate the number of people living in modern slavery in 167 countries.  

In 2016, GSI estimated that 45.8 million people are in some form of modern slavery in 167 countries.  The data behind this statistics can be explored on the GSI site.

Interactive map of human slavery data from the Global slavery index.
Interactive map of human slavery data from the Global slavery index.


[1] For more on this regression analysis, see:  Datta, M. N., & Bales, K. (2014). Slavery in Europe: Part 2, Testing a Predictive Model. Human Rights Quarterly, 36(2), 277–295.

[2] As an example, see:  Acharya, A. K. (2017). Post Trafficking Victims in Mexico and Their Reintegration Process: An Analysis of the Government’s Response. In E. C. Viano (Ed.), Cybercrime, Organized Crime, and Societal Responses (pp. 219–232). Cham: Springer International Publishing. Retrieved from

[3] For more on the concept of precarity, see:  Lewis, H., Dwyer, P., Hodkinson, S., & Waite, L. (2015). Hyper-precarious lives: Migrants, work and forced labour in the Global North. Progress in Human Geography, 39(5), 580–600.

[4] For more on the intersection of migratory policies and precarity, see:  Lewis, H and Waite, L. (2015). Asylum, immigration restrictions and exploitation: hyper-precarity as a lens for understanding and tackling forced labour. Anti-Trafficking Review, 5. pp. 50-68.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.