Bonded labour based on caste and descent also exists outside of South Asia. Recent reports reveal its spread in the countries of Mauritania and Madagascar, where existent social hierarchies and exploitation are rooted in the former slave trade.

Whilst there has been no definitive research on the extent of slavery in Mauritania, a local human rights organisation, SOS Esclaves estimate that approximately 18 per cent of Mauritania’s population (which amounts to over half a million people) live in slavery today.

Slavery has existed in Mauritania for hundreds of years and is deeply rooted within the society. Slavery status is inherited from generation to generation. Historically the white moors raided and enslaved people from the indigenous black population, who are today called the Haratine or the Black Maures. Virtually all cases of slavery in Mauritania today involve Haratine born into slavery.

This age-old distinction underpins the very nature of slavery in Mauritania whereby individuals are assigned to a ‘slave caste’ which is ascribed at birth. They are forced to work for their masters throughout their lives and are never paid for their work. They do what their masters tell them to do or they are threatened and abused. Deeply embedded discriminatory attitudes not only contribute to the persistence of slavery in Mauritania but provide the context for further marginalization and social exclusion. Mauritania’s stratified society means that those who are former slaves or descendents of slaves still live under the stigma of their ‘slave-class’ and are ostracized by society .

Upon his visit in 2008, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism concluded that Mauritanian society has been deeply marked by continuing discriminatory practices of an ethnic and racial nature. These are rooted in cultural traditions and are pervasive in social structures, attitudes and principal institutions of the State, in particular the armed forces and justice system.

In October 2009, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery visited Mauritania. Speaking at the end of her fact-finding mission, she stated that there were are all forms of slavery in Mauritania – child labour, domestic labour, child marriages and  human trafficking.

Legal provisions against slavery do exist, such as the 2007 Act No. 2007-042, which criminalizes slavery and slavery-like practices and makes it punishable with prison sentences of between five and ten years and a fine of between half a million and one million ouguiya (US$2,100 – 4,201). However, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) expressed concern over the lack of implementation of the law, at its 51st session in May 2009. The Committee is seriously concerned over reports indicating the continued existence of caste based slavery, which has a particular impact on girls in domestic service and boys forced to beg by marabouts.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) also took note of the rampant caste based slavery when reviewing the State Party in 2004.

Read more about UN recommendations on caste discrimination in Mauritania