Slavery and ‘Slumdog Millionaire

by Ambassador Mark P. Lagon
Having won eight Oscars including Best Picture, the standout film “Slumdog Millionaire” has seized the interest of a broad American audience with its beautiful acting, cinematography, and soundtrack. Yet the movie resonates with Americans not least because of the injustice it portrays: human trafficking and modern-day slavery.
Human trafficking involves people robbed of control of their lives and treated as dehumanized commodities, whether or not they cross a border in the process. It takes many forms from migrant maids and construction workers, to brick kiln workers and seafood processors in debt bondage, to prostituted women and children. Some estimate as many as 27 million people are in this contemporary form of slavery.
“Slumdog Millionaire” accurately depicts India – for all its democratic and economic successes – as the global epicenter of slavery. The story of Latika and the two brothers Jamal and Salim is that of human trafficking victims. After they are orphaned and left homeless by ethnic violence, the children are lured into forced begging. The traffickers cruelly disfigure children to make them more sympathetic, effective beggars for their masters.
Jamal is determined to find his love Latika when the brothers escape this fate without her. He finds her in the brothels of Mumbai dancing for older men, only able to save her when his brother kills her exploiter. This is the first of many ways we see Latika trapped in the sexual and domestic servitude of sadistic, corrupt men.
For two years serving in the U.S. ambassadorship created by Congress to combat slavery worldwide, I saw the reality of slavery in 28 countries, including India.
In Tamir Nadu, I met some of the few Indians freed from bonded labor and given restitution. Provided government housing which any American would consider tiny and spartan, they beamed with the joy of freedom denied to millions of others in disadvantaged castes.
Outside Delhi, I met children freed by nongovernment activists, who marched hundreds of miles to raise awareness of forced child labor. One child I met discovered a girl trapped in domestic servitude who took her own life. Others had organized to protect children from being lured into slavery at train stations.
I toured the dirty, cramped brothels of Mumbai, seeing firsthand the fate of girls like Latika. Children played a few feet away from the beds where their mothers were prostituted. Later, I sat in my pristine hotel room taking off my soiled shoes. My head spun as it sunk in how these people — every bit as human as me and the Indians in the hotel — were stripped of their human rights and basic dignity by traffickers.
So as “Slumdog Millionaire” earns deserved acclaim, viewers should appreciate the depth of its reality. People are enslaved in India, on every continent, and on a significant scale right here in the United States. There are prostituted minors, forced migrant laborers, and even prosecuted cases of Mexican children coerced into begging here. All are human trafficking victims under the law.
As the former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to combat human trafficking, there was one thing that made the frank assessments and assistance we gave other countries most effective in getting them to combat slavery. It was sharing our own record at home of helping the victims and punishing traffickers – much good and some not. America has to be an exemplar to be the most credible leader for global human rights.
In February, I joined Polaris Project as the Executive Director. It is an opportunity to avoid human rights hypocrisy at home at the same time as we rightly fight slavery on behalf of the “slumdogs” of India and every continent worldwide.

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