Experts urge multidisciplinary research to widen public awareness of people trafficking, says Tony Tysome.
Slavery researchers this week appealed to academics in other disciplines to join them in research that will raise public awareness of the modern slave trade and help influence policymakers.
This Sunday marks the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. But few people realise that there are more people in slavery today than there were at the time of the Act. The most conservative estimates suggest there are now more than 12 million people worldwide working as slaves.
Work at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation (Wise) at Hull University is helping shed new light on the modern situation, pulling together the expertise of academics in history, law, politics, anthropology, social policy, statistics, geography, economics and even medicine and genetics.
But researchers at Wise say that recent studies have shown that although there is huge scope for interdisciplinary academic work in this area, most scholarly activity continues to focus on slavery in its historical context.
Gary Craig, head of the Centre for Social Inclusion and Social Justice at Hull, helped produce a report on contemporary slavery in the UK, published last month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. But he said that a literature search conducted as part of the study found "almost nothing academically based" on the subject.
He said: "The interesting thing about modern slavery is that there are few academics working in this area. Wise is the only institute in this country pulling together people from a large number of disciplines to work on this.
"There is no shortage of people on the international stage who will contribute learned papers on aspects of historical slavery. But out of 115 papers submitted to a conference we are holding at Wise in May only four are on modern slavery."
Modern slavery exists in various forms, including trafficking of women and children for sexual and domestic labour, forced labour and debt bondage.
All exhibit common elements that have always constituted slavery - severe economic exploitation, the absence of human rights and the control of people through coercion usually involving threatened or actual violence.
David Richardson, director of Wise, said academics had an important role to play in conducting research in this area to inform the public and politicians.
"We have to move on from our research and invite politicians to take appropriate action," he said.
But Professor Craig said that while more research was needed, he also had mixed feelings about modern slavery becoming a "crowded market".
He said: "This is just beginning to emerge as a plausible area of study. In a situation like that, you hope that the growth of academic interest will drive policy and practical change, rather than just being academic study for the sake of academic study.
"Scholarship should have value - not just from studying the world but also from changing it."
Nick Evans, who is co-ordinating an new MA in modern slavery studies at Wise, said that one of the problems with the subject was that many people avoided talking about it for fear of "saying the wrong thing" and of being accused of being politically incorrect.
He said: "Slavery studies was never taught in schools until this year, and there is a lot of misinformation about the subject. But the area continues to have resonance because slavery still blights the lives of various strata in society."
Richard Reid, a lecturer in African and Imperial History at Durham University, said modern slavery studies could usefully "force academics to think outside of their own little research projects".
But he added: "The interesting caveat is that there needs to be room for nuance and subtlety to make sure we do not end up over-simplifying the themes of slavery, the movement of people and the patterns of violence towards them."
GLOBAL TRAFFICKING: THE FACTS
- It is estimated there are at least 12 million people in slavery worldwide today
- The global trafficking of people is an industry in which about $32 billion (£16.5 billion) is believed to change hands every year
- There are up to 800,000 illegal foreign workers in the UK who are considered to be at greatest risk of being taken into slavery
- Thousands of women and children are believed to have been trafficked into the UK for sexual or domestic labour in recent years
- Up to 4.5 million people were living in the European Union without legal papers in 2003, with around 400,000 a year being trafficked across member states