Jewish World Review April 23, 2001 / 30 Nissan, 5761
Either way, the story got our attention and that's OK. Whether the "slave boat" was bogus or not, slavery is real and a worldwide problem, especially in parts of the world that don't get much news media attention.
This story was different. It grabbed us.
Reports that a ship might be carrying a cargo of 200 child slaves along the western Africa coast touched off a frantic international search last week.
All that seemed to be lacking from the TV drama was a news chopper to follow the kid slave ship the way news cameras followed O.J. Simpson's white Ford Bronco.
Then the hot story seemed to fizzle out. Benin police detained one suspect ship along with its captain and part of his crew. The Nigerian captain, according to news reports, has been suspected of slave trafficking before. Only about 40 mostly pre-teen children were found, some without parents or other family members. Aid workers took the kids in for food and medical attention, but Benin police reported finding no evidence of slave trafficking.
Yet, no one could say for sure that the kid-slave-boat story was just another urban legend. UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, estimates that 200,000 child slaves are trafficked every year in West and Central Africa, where the mystery ship was reported. Maybe police caught the wrong boat. Maybe real slave kids had been tossed overboard in a frantic effort to get rid of evidence. Anything was possible in the illegal-but-lucrative slave trade that has endured for centuries along Africa's "Slave Coast" on the Gulf of Guinea.
Such suspicions deserve world attention. Around the globe, the State Department estimates more than 2 million women and children are currently in bondage, including more than 40,000 women sold into U. S. brothels.
About a million children currently are sold into bondage in Southeast Asia, according to UNICEF. They include Thai children enslaved to prostitution, Bangladeshi children slipped into the United Arab Emirates and Chinese children smuggled into Los Angeles.
Unlike most of those stories, the slave-ship story grabbed the world's attention for at least a few days and spurred at least a few people to action.
Even pop singer Michael Jackson announced plans to pack up his glove and travel to Africa to investigate. The very existence of child slavery "shakes me to my very core," he said in a statement Thursday.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, co-founder of Jackson's Heal the Kids organization, plans to accompany Jackson.
So does the Rev. Al Sharpton, well-known civil rights activist. By coincidence, one week earlier, Sharpton cut short a trip to investigate slavery in the Sudan in order to fly to the Cincinnati riots.
"Slavery is the step-child of the human rights movement," says Charles Jacobs, co-founder of the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group.
Indeed, the usually talkative Rev. Jesse Jackson uttered barely a word on the subject of slavery while serving as President Clinton's special envoy to Africa. Minister Louis Farrakhan, a friend of the Sudanese regime, denounces slavery charges as racist propaganda, despite abundant contrary evidence.
Exceptions to the apathy include Washington radio talk-show host Joe "Black Eagle" Madison. Madison participated in the freeing of 4,435 slaves last fall in the Sudan. Their freedom had to be purchased by human rights organizations. More recently, Madison was arrested April 13 with two other slavery protesters for handcuffing himself to a lamp in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Washington.
"Amnesty International talks about prisoners of conscience," Jacobs says. "Modern-day slaves are prisoners of commerce."
Yes, it is easy for those of us who live in the industrialized world to dismiss today's slaves as "not like us." They come from the lowest ranks of society. They are held captive, not because of their actions or their views, but simply because their bodies and labor have commercial value.
Slave running, like drug trafficking, is not going to be easy to stop, but it is worth the effort. The extent of it needs to be thoroughly investigated. Diplomatic pressures need to be applied where appropriate. Apathy only helps the evil to flourish. The slave traffickers run like rats from the spotlight of public attention. Let us give
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