Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Roy LOVE, University of York, Britain

Ethiopia’s position in the Horn of Africa, its proximity to the Red Sea, Gulf of Arabia and Indian Ocean, and history of fluctuating highland kingdoms, has meant that over the centuries there has been a continuous flow of people, as merchants, migrants and slaves. This paper concerns the last named of these: slavery and the slave trade in Ethiopia, its conceptual link with human trafficking today and the frequently used term ‘modern slavery’. Only in 1942 was slave ownership legally abolished in Ethiopia, following a number of ineffective earlier proclamations. During the decades which followed, a series of structural economic changes left large sections of the population behind, which, when combined with rapid population growth, generated a massive reservoir of impoverished, mainly rural, labour, many of whom migrated in hope of employment to the growing urban centres. At the same time, the expansion of oil-based wealth in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States created a new regional demand for labour. These phenomena together provided a classic context for agents and traffickers of commodified labour to flourish in what is often (though disputably) termed ‘modern slavery’, drawing today from across Ethiopia rather than the mainly southern regions of the past. Just as the formal abolition of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade by the colonial powers, and the post-bellum abolition in the USA in the 19th century, did not mean the end of forced labour, facilitated today in global human trafficking, so too in Ethiopia has the entrapment of labour continued. This ‘modern slavery’, as with the old, will only be finally eradicated not by legislation, policing and prosecution alone but essentially at the source of the supply chain, through widespread continuous education and enhanced economic opportunities, particularly for women and all those responsible for children.