UN experts spoke out about the links between discrimination and slavery at the webinar “Contemporary Slavery & Racial Discrimination: Civil Society Support to Survivors during the Pandemic” organised by the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, the Geneva Human Rights Platform and the UK Mission in Geneva, on 2 December. Several experts raised concern over caste discrimination and caste-based occupations as well as the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable groups. Panellists included slavery survivors, civil society practitioners from Lebanon, India and Brazil, as well as UN experts.

The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, explained that his mandate has received information of increases in “discrimination and violence against minority groups, such as Roma communities in Europe… and Dalits in Nepal.” He stressed that it is “of utmost importance that states put in place adequate measures now to mitigate the increasing risks of contemporary forms of slavery in the long term.”

“In India, many of the more than 100 million internal migrant workers who were forced to return home due to the pandemic were reportedly subjected to police brutality and stigmatised as virus carriers. If these workers get sick, there is no social safety net to ensure they don’t fall deeper into poverty. Poverty makes lower castes more vulnerable during emergencies and activists fear that the coronavirus will once again reinforce this inequality in many parts of the world.” Mr. Obokata stated.

“In addition, people from marginalised racial and ethnic minority groups, including those affected by caste-based discrimination, have been employed in high numbers in transport, health and cleaning sectors that carry an increased risk of contracting Covid-19, particularly when employers fail to provide protective equipment or introduce adequate safety measures.”

Tina Stavrinaki, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination noted the importance of implementation, as many countries have domestic laws which prohibit forced or bonded labour but these “practices persist in reality and affect marginalised castes.” Those suffering from slavery are dehumanised to such an extent that they are essentially invisible to national authorities.

She also commented that discrimination plays an important role as a “persistent indicator that justifies coercion and exploitation of specific groups by the rest of the population, here we find deeply rooted discrimination against specific groups.”

Vibhawari Kamble, an Associate Human Rights Officer of the OHCHR, spoke to share her own story, both as a former fellow of the Slavery Fund Fellowship Programme and as a Dalit woman who is a survivor of exclusion, marginalisation and sexual abuse. Ms. Kamble highlighted the practice of manual scavenging in India.

“In India, it is estimated that around four to six million Dalits formerly known as untouchables are engaged in the manual scavenging practice. This refers to the unsafe and manual removal of human excreta from buckets or other containers that are used as a toilet or pit latrine,” Ms. Kamble said.

“I would like to stress that this is a social movement led by Dalit women, who have organised themselves to challenge caste-based occupations that push them into slavery-like practices.”

Ms. Kamble spoke of the importance of the work of the UN slavery fund to support Dalit women in their fight for dignity and justice.

Watch the full webinar here >>