The Country Where Slavery Is Still Normal

How a perfect storm of ethnic divisions, natural disaster, and political turmoil made Mauritania a 21st-century slave state

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Child slaves in Mauritania / Reuters

The north African nation of Mauritania has tried three times to abolish slavery within its borders, most recently in 2007, and three times it has failed. Though the most recent effort established tougher legal penalties -- 10 years prison time for holding slaves, two years for "promoting" slavery -- the practice remains pervasive, with an estimated half million Mauritanians enslaved, about 20 percent of the population. Mauritanian slaves are forbidden from owning property, a last name, or legal custody of their own children.

Paradoxically, the government's official position is that slavery has been abolished, putting it in the awkward position of trying to fight slavery while simultaneously maintaining that it doesn't exist. Most recently, this has meant passing new laws to regulate the working conditions of "domestic workers." The move, which seeks to improve living conditions and curb violence against slaves, suggests that the Mauritanian government -- troubled by a recent series of coups, distracted by a struggling economy and by Chinese exploitation of the country's abundant fishing resources -- seems to have resigned itself to fighting the harm of slavery rather than the practice itself. But there's a deeper question: how is it that slavery, today, in the 21st-century, can still persist as not just pervasive but normal?

Mauritania could have been designed to be a modern-day slave state, so perfect are the conditions for entrenching this cruel habit. An artificial creation of the end of colonialism, the European-drawn, largely arbitrary borders cut across ethnic groups that are black African, black Arab or Berber, and white Arab or Berber. French colonialism rapidly centralized much of what was once a heavily nomadic population, forcing ethnic groups that had once been separated by geography to coexist and to compete. In the 1970s, widespread droughts forced many of the country's farmers and rural peoples into cities, creating new classes of destitute and jobless citizens who have been unable to adapt to this new reality. Because 50 percent of the economy is still based in agriculture, urban job opportunities are scarce. Lacking other options, faced with an economy unable to help them and an ethnic hierarchy that tells them they are worth less than their white-faced or Arab counterparts, they become slaves. Many of the displaced were children in need of a guardian. Many of those guardians became masters. The cycle repeated in the late 1980s, when an estimated 70,000 black Africans were expelled from the country, leaving behind masses of children, many of whom were enslaved.

Slavery is self-perpetuating. A first-generation slave is a desperate man, woman, or, most often, child who accepts degradation in exchange for survival. A second-generation slave knows nothing else. Though Mauritania's post-colonial struggles have perpetuated and entrenched the practice, it began generations earlier. As in Saudi Arabia, which did not emancipate its slaves until 1967, slavery was a function of extreme wealth discrepency that divided along ethnic lines between Arab and African, skin color lines between white and black, and often between sedentary and nomadic communities, the latter of which lacked recourse for recovering its children abducted into slavery. In Mauritania, the practice began with 8th century Arab colonists who took black slaves. As the number of slaves increased -- first by the ravages of European colonialism, then by the crises of the 1970s and 1980s -- the practice became the norm, which made it both too pervasive and too accepted for legislation to simply overturn.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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