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Poverty, migration, and long-held cultural beliefs are fuelling modern slavery in the Pacific, according to a new report. 

The Murky Waters report by philanthropic organization Minderoo Foundation is one of the first comprehensive evaluations of modern slavery in the Pacific region. The new study has uncovered “alarming evidence” that links climate change and increasing rates of modern slavery throughout Australia, New Zealand, and smaller Pacific Island nations. 

The report specifically examines Samoa, New Zealand, Tonga, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Australia, and Papua New Guinea.

After surveying law enforcement leaders, victim support workers, policymakers, and those from the education industry, researchers identified at least one form of modern slavery in each nation — from forced labor and human trafficking to sexual exploitation of children for commercial gains. 

"There is a perfect storm of conditions which we expect will lead to increased vulnerability to modern slavery in the Pacific region. This is not happening on the other side of the globe; it is right here in Australia and on Australia’s doorstep,” senior report researcher Elise Gordon said in a media release. “We have heard reports of signs of modern slavery among migrant workers in the construction industry, stemming from increasing foreign investment in Pacific Island communities. Also fishing brings with it a poor track record as being notorious for forced labor and human trafficking for labor exploitation.”

Pacific governments, civil society organizations, businesses, and local leaders have all been called on to do more.

Among the report’s key recommendations are improving victim identification, strengthening the criminal justice response and respective legislation, and establishing a national coordinated body on modern slavery by Pacific governments. Further, the report suggests addressing risk factors like climate change as well as strengthening ethical recruitment practises to help eradicate modern slavery from the economy.

"It is urgent that an extensive public awareness campaign is implemented in the region to create public discourse and understanding. A comprehensive training program is also needed for key stakeholders with stronger laws and enforcement,” Roshika Deo, a gender equality and social development consultant, wrote in the report. “A multi-stakeholder collaboration between academic institutions, government agencies, civil society organizations, and development partners is important for efficient use of resources, research, and policy formulation.”

Over 40 million people around the world live in some form of slavery. 

Around 70% of those people are women and children, with the Asia Pacific region recording the second-highest rates — just behind Africa. 

In the past few years, Australia has announced a range of initiatives to attempt to reduce modern slavery rates in its region. In 2018, the nation passed the Modern Slavery Act — which forces Australian businessess that have a turnover of over $100 million AUD each year to publish information on the dangers of modern slavery within their supply chains.

Last year, Australia also announced $80 million would go toward a new campaign between Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to improve law enforcement and protect the rights of modern slavery survivors.  

Similarly, New Zealand ratified the International Labor Organisation’s Protocol on Forced Labor in 2019, while Australia joined the United Nations’ Blue Heart Campaign, a global initiative seeking to curb all forms of human trafficking.


Demand Equity

The Pacific Has the ‘Perfect Storm of Conditions’ for Modern Slavery: Report

By Madeleine Keck