In much of the world, slavery seems like an issue relegated to the past. In the U.S., many Americans are quick to dismiss the legacy of slavery in the country and ignore its continued, mutated presence in the form of labor trafficking, sex trafficking, and forced prison labor. Countries such as the U.K., France, and Spain downplay the role that colonialism and slavery had in building their current world standing. The argument is that slavery is a relic of a bygone era.

Although every country in the world has officially abolished slavery, an estimated 40.3 million people worldwide are still living in slavery.

It is not. Although every country in the world has officially abolished slavery, an estimated 40.3 million people worldwide are still living in slavery. The once public institutions that enabled slavery for centuries have more often than not simply been replaced with subtler ones. Modern slavery does not necessarily mean actual ownership—it is broadly defined as the mental or physical coercion to work in a dehumanizing manner with little or no pay, nor freedom of movement.

The last country in the world to abolish slavery was Mauritania, in 1981.  Yet, it persists in staggering numbers in the North African country. While exact statistics are elusive, estimates of enslaved Mauritanians range from roughly 43,000 people (about one percent of the total population) to over half a million (about 18 percent of the population).

The practice of slavery in Mauritania runs deep. In 2017, a deeply flawed European Union migration policy led to a resurgence of slavery in Libya, though that was mostly a case of coldhearted opportunism precipitated by a chaotic political context. In Mauritania, however, slavery is woven into the social fabric. It is still a societal practice, even though government officials deny its existence altogether.

A centuries-old, color-based caste system keeps tens of thousands of Mauritanians in slavery. Lighter-skinned “masters” have complete control over the darker-skinned Mauritanians they hold in bondage. Most enslaved Mauritanians were born into servitude, inheriting their shackles from their parents. Many who live in slavery are not even aware that they are enslaved, because they know no other reality.

The treatment of enslaved Mauritanians is brutal. Moulkheir Mint Yarba, who escaped from slavery and is currently trying to bring her case to court, explained in a CNN documentary how her masters abused her: “The man who beat us made us herd a whole lot of cattle, goats, cows, camels. We would be tired, and if we came back without some of the cattle, he would beat us and fire a gun above our heads . . . . I was like an animal living with animals.”

Mauritanian women who are enslaved often endure atrocious acts of sexual violence. Mint Yarba told CNN: “[My master] would have sex with us all. My children are actually their children. These are the children of my masters.”

A formerly enslaved woman named Fatimatou told the Guardian, “I lost two babies to [my master’s] family because they prevented me from taking care of my own children.” Another woman fled after her masters killed her baby in cold blood.

In this ancestral type of slavery, masters are free to take the children of enslaved mothers and give them to family members. Consequently, many enslaved Mauritanians may never know their birth parents.

“Caste” in Stone

The roots of Mauritania’s caste system go back as early as the eighth century. During that time, Arab-Berber “Moors,” in what is now Mauritania, began to capture and enslave people belonging to neighboring black West African ethnic groups, namely the Wolof, Fula, Soninke, Serer, and Bambara peoples. Over the centuries, color-based enslavement has become embedded in the society.

The lighter-skinned Arab-Berbers, known as Bidhan or “white Moors,” are the slave masters.

In this system, the lighter-skinned Arab-Berbers, known as Bidhan or “white Moors,” are the slave masters. Those enslaved are primarily Haratines, dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking people whose caste identity is a product of slavery.

Around 30 percent of Mauritanians are Bidhan (though not necessarily slave masters) and 40 percent are Haratines, according to CIA statistics. The remaining 30 percent of the population are of the West African ethnic groups mentioned above. These groups are also subject to racism and enslavement, but the great majority of enslaved Mauritanians are Haratines. An estimated half of all Haratines live in de facto slavery.

Even free Haratines face persistent discrimination on all fronts. Mauritanian society relegates Haratines to low-paying jobs that Bidhan find degrading, like trash collection and butchery. It also denies Haratines equal land ownership, education, and political representation. The first ever Haratine presidential candidate ran in 2003, although he only received five percent of the vote.

Mauritania’s deep poverty only serves to obscure the presence of slavery; often, slave masters are extremely poor, living in tents or houses only slightly larger than those of the people they enslave. Nonetheless, they still wield complete control over them.

Just as the abolition of slavery in the U.S. did little more than merely replace the cruel institution with other means of oppression, emancipation does not guarantee Haratines liberty. Many formerly enslaved Mauritanians end up working for their former masters in the same dismal conditions. Although some descendants of enslaved people live freely, they know that their family’s former masters may compel them into servitude at any time.

The caste system is so entrenched in Mauritanian society that slavery has weathered three attempted abolitions: by French colonial authorities in 1905; upon the incorporation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into the country’s constitution in 1961, and by explicit government decree in 1981.

Although a 2007 law criminalized slavery, it has fallen short of its objectives and lacked any real effort to inform the public. The law poorly defines slavery, requires enslaved people to file complaints themselves, and offers no support to those freed. Despite receiving 47 cases for investigation involving 53 suspects in 2016 alone, Mauritanian anti-slavery courts have sentenced only four accused slave masters since 2007.

Bidhans dominate every branch of Mauritania’s judiciary system and police, allowing them to obstruct justice and neglect reported cases of slavery.

A Problem Concealed

Prosecuting slave owners is complicated by the fact that enslaved people may not know, nor want to admit, that they are enslaved, either out of fear or ignorance. “People think that God created them to be slaves,” Brahim Bilal Ramdhane, a formerly enslaved man, told Reuters. “Some need to be convinced that their enslavement is not a fact of life. Many others seek out help to gain their freedom,” he added.

Mauritania’s slavery is not as brazen as American slavery once was. A program coordinator for Anti-Slavery International said, “If you’re expecting to see people in chains then you won’t see that. The dependency relationship can be much subtler, much more invisible than that.”

Misinformation helps sustain it. Masters abuse faith, misleading the enslaved to believe that God wishes them to be so (the Qur’an, in fact, prohibits Muslims from enslaving other Muslims). “When I was younger, my mother told me every night that we must respect our masters, because their caste is higher than ours, and they are saints,” Moctar, a formerly enslaved Haratine man, told the Guardian.

Geographic isolation also can take the place of chains. Many enslaved Mauritanians live in rural desert areas, and the surrounding harsh environment leaves them with nowhere to go, even if they want to escape.

Other enslaved people are simply unaware that life could be different, and masters try to keep it that way. Boubacar Messaoud, co-founder of SOS Esclaves Mauritanie, the country’s leading anti-slavery non-profit, told CNN that masters need only perpetuate the “symbolic violence” of inevitable, inheritable “misery” to ensure servitude.

“Chains are for the captive . . . for the slave who has just become a slave. But the multigenerational slave—he is a slave, even in his own head,” Messaoud said.

Yebawa Ould Keihel, one formerly enslaved Haratine man featured in CNN’s documentary, said of his emancipation: “[Freedom] did not matter to me, I didn’t gain anything. The master father never told us anything about it.”

Ould Keihel was interviewed alongside his former master’s son, Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane, now an abolitionist who helped found SOS Esclaves. Ould Ethmane said that, despite having freedom, Ould Keihel still considers himself his slave and doesn’t fully grasp the difference between working with and without pay. Workshops are often needed to teach formerly enslaved Haratines what money is, how it is used, and how it can be earned.

Members of the slave master caste, born into a system that they are taught to consider normal, frequently end up carrying on the practice.

Members of the slave master caste, born into a system that they are taught to consider normal, frequently end up carrying on the practice. “Choosing Yebawa, well . . . it was as if I was picking out a toy,” Ould Ethmane told CNN. “It was nothing new. Traditionally, when a boy is circumcised, he generally picked out a slave.”

Hence, because it is ingrained since birth, the acceptance of slavery is difficult to eradicate. Ould Ethmane broke the cycle after reading about the French Revolution’s egalitarian ideals. Until then, he had never conceived that “equal rights for all” was an option. (Ironically, Napoleon reintroduced slavery to French colonies only eight years after the revolution banned it. France formally abolished slavery in its West African colonies in 1905.)

Years later, with a changed perspective, Ould Ethmane met Messaoud and other outspoken and educated Haratines: SOS Esclaves was born. Never before had abolitionist Bidhans partnered with formerly enslaved Haratines in this way. Breaking this caste barrier is crucial to fighting for abolition, especially when the Bidhan-dominated government in Mauritania works to keep slavery alive.

Silencing Abolitionists and Journalists

Trumpeting its weak anti-slavery actions to the international community, Nouakchott stubbornly denies that slavery even exists in Mauritania anymore.

“I must tell you that in Mauritania, there is total freedom,” Brahim Ould M’Bareck Ould Med El Moctar, Mauritania’s minister of rural development, told CNN. “Equality, between all ethnicities, all men and women of Mauritania. . . . [Slavery] has been abolished. So, there is absolutely no more problem of that.”

When abolitionists and journalists try to expose this falsehood, Nouakchott attacks them. Amnesty International accused the government of violently repressing anti-slavery activists, documenting 168 cases of arbitrary arrest since 2014, including at least 17 cases of “torture and other ill-treatment.” Nouakchott further silences dissent by prohibiting peaceful protests, outlawing activist groups, and enabling smear campaigns that label abolitionists “traitors, criminals, foreign agents, racists, apostates, or politicians.”

One of the leading abolitionists and most targeted activists is Biram Dah Abeid (whose last name translates to “slaves”), a son of a formerly enslaved Haratine. He heads the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA) and ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2014. The IRA’s bold activism and interventions against slave masters have gotten Abeid expelled from a government human rights post and imprisoned many times.

Like SOS Esclaves, IRA helps enslaved people win their freedom. But the movement is up against a “kind of informal coalition [of Bidhans], the state, police, judges, and imams,” wrote Alexis Okweoko in a New Yorker profile. Abeid told Okweoko that “whenever a slave breaks free and IRA is not aware and not present, police officers and judges help Arab-Berbers to intimidate the slave until he returns in submission.” Some masters use abuse, rape, or death threats to keep people from leaving.

Journalists are also silenced. Mauritanian police arrested French-Moroccan photojournalist Seif Kousmate for researching a story about slavery in 2018. They interrogated him in detention for three days and confiscated his belongings, initially accusing him of “suspected terrorism and then of activism in support of the cause of the descendants of slaves.” Kousmate had interviewed Biram Dah Abeid.

Other journalists investigating slavery have been forced to leave the country or imprisoned. One Mauritanian blogger’s initial death sentence (for “apostasy”) was reduced to two years in prison, but, over a year after his official release date, he remains detained.

Breaking the Cycle

Given the reality on the ground, the government’s anti-slavery measures appear as hollow gestures to appease criticism from abroad. Still, if foreign opinions are Nouakchott’s concern, the international community could effect deeper change by exerting more pressure, in line with IRA demands.  

The U.S. announced in November 2018 that Mauritania must eradicate forced labour and hereditary slaveryin order to keep its trade benefits.

The U.S. announced in November 2018 that Mauritania must eradicate forced labour and hereditary slaveryin order to keep its trade benefits. A January 2018 African Union (AU) court ruling required Nouakchott to pay financial compensation and provide psychological and legal support to two brothers who had been enslaved since birth, arguing that their former master’s two-year sentence failed to deliver justice. The AU ruling has no enforcement mechanism, but anti-slavery activists hope it will influence the Mauritanian judiciary.

Without a strong push to break this “state of perpetual and inheritable domination” (as American scholar Cornel West described this type of slavery), it will continue. It remains to be seen if Mauritania’s state will be that catalyst. Slavery will disappear from Mauritania only after a profound revision of the country’s societal norms and political structures.

Like Ould Ethmane, other Bidhans need to recognize their slave master status as unjust and work to dismantle the caste system from which they benefit. Enslaved Haratines also need to be made aware of their circumstances, assisted in the fight for their freedom and supported after their emancipation. Mauritania’s economic and political systems need to ensure Haratines equal opportunity and access, without discrimination. The existing anti-slavery legislation needs to be enforced in good faith.

Along the long road to true abolition of slavery in Mauritania, each person freed is a life regained, and victory can only be claimed when all are free.