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University of Hull marks International Day for Abolition of Slavery

December 2 marks the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

It is now 72 years since the United Nations adopted its Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others.

The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery focuses on eradicating contemporary forms of slavery, such as people trafficking, sexual exploitation, child labour, forced marriage, and the forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.

Through its renowned Wilberforce Institute, the University of Hull is at the forefront of both understanding and tackling modern-day slavery.

Its work has influenced governments and businesses to adopt new, robust policies to remove slavery from their supply chains.

Here, Wilberforce Institute Director, Professor Trevor Burnard, writes about the significance of December 2, and Hull’s important role in the history of abolishing slavery.

#BreaktheChain campaign in London

The Wilberforce Institute focuses on celebrating ideas of freedom, equality and social justice

“Hull has long played a leading role in crusading to abolish slavery…”

The last two years have been difficult for everyone. They have been especially difficult years for the most vulnerable people in our community in the UK and worldwide – the sort of people who might become victims of modern slavery.

As Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon noted in a speech on 23 November 2021 to the United Nations on the Global Plan of Action to Combat Human Trafficking, new global estimates for modern slavery make for difficult reading. The pandemic has had a devastatingly dipropionate impact on the most unprivileged members of society and on those people already victims of modern slavery.

Hull has long played a leading role in crusading to abolish slavery, from the work of its most distinguished citizen, William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who led the parliamentary campaign to end the slave trade, to the activities of Christian preacher and antislavery advocate, Salim Charles Wilson (1859-1946).

The University of Hull, in particular, has been enthusiastic in its efforts to foster racial and social justice; to do pioneering research on historical slavery, notably in helping to establish exact numbers for the transatlantic slave trade; and to countering modern slavery. It was among the first universities to appoint a person of colour, Sir Roy Marshall (1920-2015), a Barbadian, as Vice-Chancellor (1979-1985) and one of its most distinguished alumni is another Barbadian, three times graduate of the University of Hull and long-standing Vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Sir Hilary Beckles.

Beckles is himself an important historian of historical slavery in seventeenth century Barbados. One of the University of Hull’s major accomplishment was founding, in 2006, the Wilberforce Institute, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its patron. The Institute, which I am proud to be the third director, is devoted to studying slavery in the past and to combatting modern slavery in the present.

William Wilberforce statue

Through its renowned Wilberforce Institute, the University of Hull is at the forefront of both understanding and tackling modern-day slavery

“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know…”

The Wilberforce Institute focuses on celebrating ideas of freedom, equality and social justice as our forebears did but in an updated and contemporary way. Sometimes it feels a difficult task to uphold such values as the numbers of people in forced and bonded labour, sexual exploitation, sex trafficking, county lines, domestic servitude and forced criminality keep on increasing while those profiting from such activities are seldom apprehended, let alone punished.

What gives me and my colleagues at the Wilberforce Institute hope is that knowledge about modern slavery and how horrible it is continues to increase, as more and more people become aware both that modern slavery exists and that it is a bad thing. Increasing knowledge about modern slavery is extremely important in trying to end it, which makes an event such as the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2 December so important.

We follow the words of our namesake, William Wilberforce, in applying today what he said two centuries ago: `you may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.’ Our aim at the Wilberforce Institute is to increase awareness of the evil of contemporary exploitation.

For this reason, we have initiated the ACTion to Combat Modern Slavery Justice Hub, managed by Andrew Smith, a person very experienced in matters to do with homelessness, victim exploitation and modern slavery, especially in his ongoing work with the Humberside Police.

This Justice Hub was launched with great fanfare at the Inner Temple in London on 21 October with speeches from modern slavery expert Professor Kevin Bales; a leading barrister who prosecuted the first modern slavery case under new legislation, Caroline Haughey; and one of the key people behind the passing of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, Fiona Hill.

The aim of this Justice Hub is to help give information and training to a whole range of stakeholders, from lawyers to social workers to people working in justice and others, about how the Modern Slavery Act operates and about how modern slavery might be recognised, observed and dealt with. We will not just provide training and advice on modern slavery but will keep in mind at all times the most important people in efforts to combat modern slavery – the victims of slavery.

We need to learn from the survivors of modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking so that we can respond effectively to these terrible crimes. The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery makes us remember those victims of slavery in the past, urge us to help those survivors of slavery in the present and work to stop there being more victims of slavery in the future.

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