Forced marriages, modern slavery on rise

·2-min read

About 50 million people globally are living in modern slavery and a growing number of women are in forced marriages, new Australian-led research shows.

A study, spearheaded by philanthropic foundation Walk Free, found widespread socioeconomic instability linked to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic had contributed to increasing poverty and forced migration.

An estimated 28 million people are in forced labour and 22 million are trapped in forced marriages.

The number of people in modern slavery has risen by more than nine million over the past five years, the report by Walk Free and the UN's International Labour Organisation and International Organisation for Migration found.

"Modern slavery is the antithesis of sustainable development. Yet in 2022, it continues to underpin our global economy," Walk Free founding director Grace Forrest said on Monday.

"It is a man-made problem, connected to both historical slavery and persisting structural inequality.

"In a time of compounding crises, genuine political will is the key to ending these human rights abuses," Ms Forrest said.

Researchers found migrant workers were more than three times as likely as others to be drawn into forced labour.

The number of people living in forced marriages was estimated to have grown by almost seven million over the past five years.

However the true number was likely far greater given the difficulties associated with capturing child marriages in the data.

Forced marriage is illegal under Australian law, including when people are taken overseas to marry.

But the report noted criminalisation could drive the practice underground and distract from a more holistic response including prevention measures.

Research out of the United Kingdom suggested criminalisation "could make victims more fearful to come forward, especially if it could lead to their family members being imprisoned", the report said.

Australia's modern slavery laws require businesses to ensure slavery does not occur in their domestic or global operations or supply chains.

A review of modern slavery legislation is underway led by Australian National University professor John McMillan, with public consultation open until November 22.