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Sensing Slavery: Using Satellite Imagery to Combat Modern Slavery

Slavery is an acute modern day issue that cannot be ignored but one that is difficult to resolve. Not only does slavery still exist but it is likely there are more slaves in 2017 than there were victims of the transatlantic slave trade between the 15th and the 19th centuries. 45.8 million people are in some form of modern slavery in 167 countries, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index.

Modern slavery differs from that of the slave trade, though: there are more slaves in 2017 but they represent a smaller proportion of the general population; slavery is illegal in every country so for it to continue it requires corruption, crime and the lack of government enforcement; slaves are cheap and can generate high financial returns; and it is now a global issue.

Forced labor in surface mines, quarries and brick kilns in Pakistan and Nepal, fish processing plants in Bangladesh, human trafficking using fishing vessels in Indonesia, sex trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa, India and southeast Asia, and bonded labor are all forms of modern slavery.

A global commitment to end slavery by 2030 is enshrined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals:

"Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labor in all its forms."

These are big intentions, but hard to enforce and monitor compliance on a global scale.

Tackling the issue

Tackling the issue of slavery may be complicated by the unwillingness of governments to allow Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Inter-Governmental Organizations (IGOs) or other entities access to sites to assess conditions or monitor abuses.

Satellite imagery has, in the past, not been the panacea to tackle the issue either. “The historically low level of detail and the difficulty in getting satellite imagery has hampered its operational use. Now, the next generations of satellite systems are improving the ease of access to imagery and its information content," confirms Owen Hawkins, operations director at Earth-i, which collaborated with the University of Nottingham on their "Slavery from Space" project.

The next generation of high resolution satellite imagery can, however, be of critical assistance: supplementing other data, such as eyewitness accounts, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and aircraft flight imaging, etc. High-resolution satellite imagery can assist NGO and IGO groundwork as a tool for assessing population number changes and detailed mapping for access and resource management purposes. Satellite images can also be coordinated with any on the ground staff requiring access to current data, particularly in changing hostile conditions. Used as evidence in the International Court of Justice, satellite imagery may assist prosecute human rights violations.

Sensing Slavery

Satellite remote sensing can provide an effective monitoring tool and can assist in the provision of evidence as to where and when slavery occurs.

'We can learn from satellite images and videos the locations and operations of illegal fishing boats, farms and brick kilns, all locations where the employment of slaves and child slaves is more likely. These uses of satellite data are expanding, particularly through crowd sourced analysis and as a result of increased awareness of human rights organizations," continues Owen Hawkins.

Satellite imagery may offer the role of “global monitor” of possible slavery sites. Funding levels required to support satellite monitoring and policing are also less than that required to support troops or humanitarian aid staff policing and monitoring possible slavery sites.

"Anti-slavery observatory"

The potential of satellite data has recently been the catalyst for Professor of Contemporary Slavery Kevin Bales of the University of Nottingham to propose an "anti-slavery observatory," a multi-stakeholder organization which will use satellite data to increase knowledge and evidence of modern slavery activities. The envisaged plan is to create a slavery monitoring system through a dedicated satellite to enable governments, law enforcement and global agencies to take action against slavery activities.

"We are just beginning the journey to unlock the full potential of detecting slavery from space. As technology and processing routines develop we will exploit these and won't stop until satellites are an effective tool to aid the prevention of slavery activity," comments Dr. Doreen Boyd, associate professor and reader in Earth Observation (EO) at the University of Nottingham. VS