human rights

Which country has the most slaves?

You may have seen this image circulating a couple of months ago. It shows the countries of the world ranked according to what percentage of the people live as slaves. As you can see, there’s one major outlier – the West African country with 4% of its population enslaved. Do you know which country that is?


I’ll confess that I drew a blank, despite having learned all the African countries at one stage. It’s Mauritania, and it has the dubious honour of coming in at first place in the Global Slavery Index. The estimate in the Index is 4%, but other estimates suggest the problem may be far larger than that, with some as high as 20% of the population in slavery.

Slavery is officially illegal in Mauritania, and is forbidden under Islamic teaching too. Nevertheless, the country has a long standing social hierarchy in which the ‘black Moor’ population are traditionally seen as belonging to the minority ‘white Moors’. Slave status is passed down through the generations, with women kept for household work and raising children, and men used as labour on farms and ranches.

Remarkably, owning slaves was only outlawed in 2007. Since the black population are mostly illiterate, many of them do not know this. The government and the judiciary are in the hands of the minority, and there is little recourse to justice if they do find out what their rights are. The government has promised action and ratified international agreements on slavery and people trafficking, but lacks the capacity to enforce the rules, while NGOs wonder if the will is there to do so.

For more on Mauritania and what is being done to address this complex problem, see the detailed country profile on the Global Slavery Index.


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