Modern Slavery: Uncharted Waters

by Natalya Wallin

It was a humid 95 degrees in Yangon. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck as I sat cross-legged on the floor. Across from me sat a weather-beaten boy with dark scars on his small hands and arms. Lured from home by a recruiter’s false promise of a good job paying about $60 USD per month on the coast, he instead found himself sold into slavery. On a fishing boat in the middle of the sea, no land in sight, the captain told him and the crew that they were welcome to jump overboard if they wanted to leave.
For almost two years he worked 20 hours a day, was never paid, and imagined ending his life—the only exit he could see. As I sought to understand how and why he got onto that boat in the first place, I started by asking why the recruiter’s job offer was appealing.
“I never met my father but I heard he was a fisherman; I didn’t know how to swim but I thought I could learn to fish like him,” he replied. Then his voice softened and he looked away, “And I always wanted to see the ocean.”
Those words cut me, and they still haunt me.
This boy had a dream, a pretty simple one. That dream was taken away by a deceptive recruiter exploiting his poverty and his family’s perpetual debt to predatory moneylenders. It was ripped away by sea captains stealing men’s labor to improve profit margins in the fishing business. It was torn away by an entire system of exploitation that thrives at the expense of the most vulnerable—people used up and thrown away, broken.
Make no mistake. This boy’s experience is not an isolated incident. It’s just one example of an epidemic of desperation. There are millions like him caught up in systems of slavery.
These systems of slavery involve global supply chains, demand for cheap labor, vulnerable populations, weak rule of law, corruption. The systems include fishing boats and garment factories, palm oil plantations and sugar cane. It’s everywhere. It’s messy.
But what gets me out of bed every morning is the fact that these systems can be broken, transformed. This problem is solvable.
Conversations about modern slavery (an umbrella term for various forms of human trafficking) tend to be viewed through a human rights lens as a soft policy issue that can’t be meaningfully addressed. But the reality is that modern slavery is a global, profitable business that wrecks economies, destroys human capital, and threatens national security. It’s all connected.
Traffickers make bank—about $150 billion USD per year. And the truth is that we won’t be able to stop these guys without really big money and a bold strategy.
I’m currently working with the Global Fund to End Slavery to develop that strategy. We’re pioneering an approach leveraging data analytics and systems mapping to flip the whole system on its head and make slavery unprofitable. And we need more partners willing to make really big bets. If we work together with big resources and big strategy, I believe we can transform these systems and put the bad guys out of business.
For me this initiative is unknown territory, a frontier, uncharted waters. There are solutions involving cutting edge technology and groundbreaking use of data. Solutions are within reach—just a bit further out to sea, where the maps end, where the horizon blurs into endless blue of sky and water.
If we dream bigger, invest smarter—and at a scale matching that $150 billion traffickers pull in every year—we can have an impact like never before.
I’ll never forget that boy in Myanmar. The faraway look in his eyes. His simple wish to get out of that one-room house in an alley to nowhere. His simple wish to go see the ocean. Maybe we all have a little of that explorer’s heart, that pioneer’s spirit. Hope you’ll join me.

About Wallin:
Natalya Wallin is senior executive of global systems strategy at the Global Fund to End Slavery. She spearheads development of an analytical systems approach for designing data-driven intervention portfolios and engages government stakeholders in priority countries for investment.
Prior to joining the Fund, Ms. Wallin completed her master of public policy degree at the University of Chicago where she studied economics, data analytics, and foreign policy. She has also served as executive editor of the Chicago Policy Review, was named a DACOR Fellow in foreign affairs, and conducted research on female labor force participation in Kosovo. Her work proposing applications of data analytics to understanding female suicide terrorism recruitment has been featured by the Council on Foreign Relations.
Ms. Wallin previously served as special assistant to the ambassador to combat trafficking in persons at the U.S. State Department and was honored to work as a White House intern for the Obama administration. She is a proud Duke alumna, class of 2010, where she first developed a love for international relations, North Carolina summer nights, and southern food.
Twitter @NatalyaWallin