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From Conflict to Modern Slavery: The Drivers and Deterrents

Last week, members of the Wilberforce Institute celebrated with our colleague Dr Alicia Heys as her book, From Conflict to Modern Slavery: The Drivers and Deterrents, was published with Oxford University Press. To coincide with the launch, Alicia has written a short overview of some of the key aspects of this book, which can be ordered here. Eva Veldhuizen-Ochodničanová, a Forensic Psychologist who works in conflict-related human trafficking, and provided a comment on the book, adds her reflections on its value and timely publication.

Dr. Alicia Heys
Lecturer, Researcher in Modern Slavery and author of 'From Conflict to Modern Slavery: The Drivers and Deterrents': Oxford University Press
Eva Veldhuizen-Ochodničanová
Forensic Psychologist, Consultant to international organisations in Child Sexual Abuse and trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation

Dr Alicia Heys:

Having previously worked in the field of anti-slavery as a practitioner, I had some real insight into current approaches to understanding and responding to modern slavery, much of which focused on trying to combat exploitation in progress. This, of course, is highly important, but I began to get frustrated with the lack of focus on root causes, which offered the potential to develop methods of prevention. With this in mind I looked around for places that might conduct research into the factors that facilitate the existence of modern slavery, and came across the Wilberforce Institute. At the time they were offering a PhD scholarship on the relationship between conflict and modern slavery and I decided to apply. I was successful, and in 2015 began the research on which this book is based.


Initially, I found myself delving into a realm of definitions and nuances that demanded a deeper understanding and clarification of the key terms of conflict and modern slavery. The timing of my exploration was particularly significant, as it coincided with the introduction of the UK's Modern Slavery Act in 2015. In the UK, modern slavery is used as an umbrella term for human trafficking, servitude, and forced or compulsory labour, as well as slavery itself. Modern slavery therefore manifests in various forms, including sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, domestic servitude, criminal exploitation, and even organ harvesting (with the UK seeing its first prosecution for organ harvesting earlier this year).

To guide my research, I adopted the definition of slavery as laid out in the Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines, which is the product of a collaboration between slavery scholars and property lawyers. Historically, enslaved people were considered as property, and while it is no longer legal for one person to own another, the Guidelines have retained the idea of property as control at the heart of this definition:

"in cases of slavery, the exercise of ‘the powers attaching to the right of ownership’ should be understood as constituting control over a person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of his or her individual liberty, with the intent of exploitation through the use, management, profit, transfer or disposal of that person. Usually this exercise will be supported by and obtained through means such as violent force, deception and/or coercion." 

While I had expected to spend a lot of time deliberating about the definitions of slavery, I had naively anticipated that conflict would be much easier to describe. I was mistaken. Initially, I had essentially equated conflict with war, but it soon became apparent that those who self-identified as having experienced conflict defined their notion of conflict in much broader terms. This led to a thorough scouring of definitions of conflict in everything from International Humanitarian Law to dictionary definitions, only to find that there is no universally accepted definition of conflict. I responded by generating my own: 

A set of conditions whereby parties identify and act on mutually incompatible goals. While this act may be violent, the presence of violence is not necessary in order for the situation to be defined as conflict. It is possible to be affected by a conflict without being an active participant.

Dr Alicia Heys' definition of Conflict

Exploring the Relationship

To try and understand the intricate nature of the relationship between conflict and modern slavery, my aim was to interview three sets of people: individuals who had experienced conflict; those who had experienced both conflict and modern slavery; and professionals working with either of these groups. I conducted a total of 24 interviews, 11 of these being with individuals who had fled conflict, and the remaining 13 with agency workers. In addition to providing their own insights and experiences of supporting individuals who had experienced conflict/modern slavery, the agency workers were able to discuss the experiences of a further 16 individuals with lived experience of these situations.

Key Findings

There were a number of key and significant findings from this research that helped me to understand how and why conflict situations can be so conducive to modern slavery, the main factors being that conflict reduces a person’s options, and leads to a breakdown in their support networks.

  1. Reduced Options: Conflict often narrows down the options available to individuals, leaving them with limited, often undesirable choices. Many respondents faced the dilemma of staying in an extremely dangerous conflict situation or accepting offers of support that came with concerns about illegitimacy. This ‘choiceless choice’ forces victims to select the ‘least bad’ option.
  2. Breakdown of Support Networks: Conflict can also lead to a breakdown in support networks, further limiting individuals' options. Without trusted connections to turn to for help, individuals must make decisions on their own or rely on offers from strangers who may have ulterior motives.

Beyond these two direct correlations, a number of other key issues were highlighted by the findings of the research. Perhaps the most significant of these is that it is crucial to recognise that victimhood and agency exist on a spectrum rather than as binary opposites. Victims of modern slavery often retain some degree of agency in their decisions, but this agency is heavily influenced by the structural conditions in which they live. This complexity is particularly evident in light of the UK's political environment, where rhetoric about combating modern slavery conflicts with policies that create a hostile environment for immigrants. While modern slavery primarily involves the reduction of agency by one person over another, it is essential to acknowledge that this personal relationship is only possible due to conducive macro-level structures.


The intricate relationship between conflict and modern slavery demands a nuanced understanding of both terms. By delving into these complexities and adopting a comprehensive definition of conflict, we can begin to unravel the factors that increase an individual's vulnerability to modern slavery in conflict and post-conflict environments. This research highlights the urgent need for holistic approaches to address modern slavery, taking into account not only the immediate personal dynamics but also the broader structural and societal factors that enable modern slavery to persist.


Eva Veldhuizen-Ochodničanová’s reflections on Alicia Hey’s From Conflict to Modern Slavery: The Drivers and Deterrents

On Wednesday last week, I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at the launch of From Conflict to Modern Slavery, Dr Alicia Heys’ new book, published by the prestigious Oxford University Press.

From Conflict to Modern Slavery has been used to train war crimes investigators, border guards, anti-trafficking authorities, Ombudsmen, the Red Cross and other refugee agencies

Eva Veldhuizen-Ochodničanová

In my speech, I discussed the practical implications of the arguments set out in the book, specifically with regard to the war in Ukraine. Since the start of the full-scale invasion by the Russian Federation on 22 February 2022, the world and specifically the European Union has witnessed a shift in priorities, with an emergence of attention on the relationship between conflict-related modern slavery and human trafficking. However, despite widespread acceptance that there are connections between modern slavery and conflict, there continued to be a dearth of research examining the underlying reasons why the two are so closely interlinked.

I myself noticed this lack of research only when preparing training modules on conflict-related trafficking for the border force and frontline workers in Moldova with INTERPOL SOTERIA and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. As a result, I reached out to Dr Alicia Heys in the early months of the full-scale invasion.

The research which underlies From Conflict to Modern Slavery has since helped to train over 50 State, Civil and Law Enforcement organisations across Europe, with ten workshops held in eight countries: Ukraine, Moldova, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, the UK and Hungary. From Conflict to Modern Slavery has been used to train war crimes investigators, border guards, anti-trafficking authorities, Ombudsmen, the Red Cross and other refugee agencies, with great success: 98% of participants demonstrated a significant self-reported improvement in their understanding of the relationship between conflict and modern slavery/human trafficking.

It was striking that despite Dr Heys’ research having been conducted prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, her thesis - that a reduction in agency and a removal of support networks underly the increase in risk of modern slavery following conflict - applies perfectly to the Ukrainian context. As with other conflicts and wars, we have seen a separation of families with the introduction of Martial Law across Ukraine, increased economic desperation with the closing down or destruction of places of work and a sudden need for over 11 million displaced Ukrainians to find shelter, housing and tend to their basic needs. The options for Ukrainians narrowed, and therefore the opportunities for traffickers to exploit these newly created vulnerable situations expanded.

Where Dr Heys’ book is brilliant is in illustrating the universality of these experiences. Conflict and subsequent refugee flows have indeed increased since the full-scale invasion, but not just because of the Ukrainian context. Seven military coups have taken place over the last three years in Africa. The Tigray War of Ethiopia has continued since 3 November 2020, while displacement as a result of conflict has continued in Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan. Yet while the EU has provided Ukrainian refugees with relatively expansive rights under the Temporary Protection Directive, UK laws continue to become more restrictive towards asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants.

From Conflict to Modern Slavery is therefore an important and timely reminder to refocus our attention on the importance of not only recognising the relationship between conflict and human trafficking, but to delve deeper into the causality thereof, and the steps that both governments and individual actors can take to counter it.

It is my hope that the book is given both the literary and academic praise it deserves, and at a higher political level that the recommendations it outlines are taken seriously.

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