A Crime So Monstrous—Busted Halo’s series on modern day slavery

Part 1 - An interview with E. Benjamin Skinner


There are more slaves today than at any other point in human history.
— E. Benjamin Skinner, A Crime So Monstrous

In his 1999 book, Disposable People, author Kevin Bales declared there were 27 million slaves worldwide — living, breathing, feeling human beings forced to work or suffer punishment, often both.

For most of us, it’s difficult to imagine that in 2009 there are more than 27 million people, most of them women and children, being held against their will. Many are abused or carried across international borders and exploited as servants, forced prostitutes or laborers. Most of them have absolutely no knowledge or power that could have enabled them to avoid entering their slavery situation. And many, many of them never make it out. In the rare event they do, it’s not unusual that they no longer possess their sense of humanness or the will to continue living.

Policy makers treat slavery and human trafficking as two separate issues, but they often go hand in hand. The United Nations defines human trafficking as the following:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

Busted Halo’s three-part series on modern-day slavery and human trafficking aims not only to raise consciousness and concern about these two incredibly important human rights issues, but also to move readers to action.

E. Benjamin Skinner, activist and author of <em>A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery</em><br /> <br />Photo by Dylan Fareed
E. Benjamin Skinner, activist and author of A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery Photo by Dylan Fareed

There Is God in Everyone

In his book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery (available in paperback on March 24, 2009), activist and author E. Benjamin Skinner chronicles the often traumatic, sometimes triumphant true stories of slaves and trafficking victims across twelve countries, including the United States where 17,000 people are trafficked every year.

Busted Halo: How do we define the slavery that you’ve written about?

E. Benjamin Skinner: I adopt Kevin Bales’s definition. A slave is a person who is forced to work — held through force or fraud, with threat of violence — with no pay beyond subsistence. Unfortunately the word “slavery” is actually used [in our vernacular] as a metaphor where it’s defined as drudgery or toil or undue hardness. This doesn’t have much legal implication, if we are to [focus on instances of Bales’s definition].

BH: What are three things you want everyone to know about human trafficking?

EBS: The first is that at its core, slavery is the same as it’s been for five thousand years as recorded in human history. Slaves today are in situations where they are forced to work, but the main difference between now and the rest of human history is that it’s illegal. Not only is it an abomination in God’s eyes, but it’s also an abomination in man’s eyes and the law’s eyes.

The second is that there are more slaves today than at any other point in human history.

The third is that the end of slavery cannot wait for the end of absolute poverty, with 1.1 billion people living on less than a dollar a day. Human trafficking has been rising, and slavery has been rising.

But, we have to fight traffickers, and reach out to slaves and vulnerable communities. The best programs I’ve seen incorporate programs that include health care, the empowerment of women and girls, and a combination of other really targeted development work.

“…slavery is the same as it’s been for five thousand years… the main difference between now and the rest of human history is that it’s illegal. Not only is it an abomination in God’s eyes, but it’s also an abomination in man’s eyes and the law’s eyes.”

BH: To which continents did you travel, and how much time did you spend abroad conducting interviews for this book?

EBS: I traveled to Sudan, the Netherlands, India, Nepal, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Turkey, Moldova, Cambodia, Romania, the UAE, and wound up the book in the U.S. in Miami. I started traveling for the book in 2003 but had started really researching it in 2000 – 2001. [ EDITOR’S NOTE — The book was published in hardcover in 2008.] I did a couple of Newsweek stories that were the seeds of the book, from Mauritania, about two slaves who told very harrowing and inspired stories about being born into a system of slavery who somehow became conscious of their basic God-given human rights. It was amazing to hear how they had been [raised with slavery] from birth and yet they realized it was wrong, and the only way to break free was literally to run.

BH: Tell us about your relationship with the Quakers.

EBS: I was raised Quaker and first started learning about slavery in First Day School, or what would be known as Sunday school. We learned a lot about the history of the Quakers and abolition in the U.S. As early as the 19th century, my family were active Quakers in the U.S., and they had been active resistors of slavery, which is seen by the Quakers as an abomination and annihilation of God’s laws. The knowledge of that family history and what I was learning in First Day School provided the seed of my interest. We learned as much about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass as we would about Jesus and Moses.

Harriet Tubman took hallucinations, resulting from her abuse, as being messages from God to set herself free and to set her people free, to walk in the path of Moses. That’s what inspired her to free dozens of slaves over the course of her life. Her model inspires many abolitionists to free modern slaves. For those of us who have been working on this for any number of years, for what we’re trying to work on, our bar is set much lower. We aren’t like Harriet Tubman putting our lives and freedom at risk. We have the law on our side, and generally we have the public on our side, which should make us that much more resolved to finish the unfinished work [to free these people], as Abraham Lincoln put it in the Gettysburg Address.