It’s not legal anywhere, but it exists everywhere. Often out of sight and out of reach, the industry of human slavery continues to operate on a global scale.

In an effort to emphasize the relevancy and urgency of these clandestine operations worldwide, four panelists convened at a “Symposium on Human Trafficking” Wednesday night at Elon University to discuss the various facets of a deeply complex issue.

The panelists included Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves; Helen Grant, professor and clinical director of the Elon University School of Law; Tony Williams, director of World Relief's affiliate office in North Carolina; and cultural anthropologist Richard Smith.

Bales began the discussion by identifying the distinction between human trafficking and human slavery, so that the latter might be better understood.

“While this as built as a human trafficking symposium, it’s about slavery,” he said. “Trafficking is a process by which people are taken into slavery. If you make it so they end up in a situation where they cannot walk away, the ultimate result is in slavery. There have been cases denied in criminal courts because (of discrepancies) in wording.”

Trafficked or not, an estimated 27 million people are enslaved each year, which is the highest number ever enslaved at any given time in history, Bales said. But he was quick to relate the figure to the world’s growing population.

“Twenty-seven million is a very large number indeed," he said. "It’s very significant in terms of the number of people enslaved. But it’s also the smallest fraction of the global population to ever be enslaved, and the smallest fraction of the global economy historically.”

Despite the relatively small proportion of slaves in a global context, the industry continues to generate growth and profit for the estimated 6 million slaveholders worldwide. The problem is perpetuated not by apathy, but by a general unawareness that spans continents, Bales said.

“(Human slavery) is illegal in every country; we have pushed it to the very edge of global society,” he said. “It is teetering on the edge of nonexistence, waiting for a good hard kick over the edge. It is a surmountable problem, but awareness is so lacking. It is hard to generate the resources needed to get rid of the problem.”

The lack of resources to combat human slavery is evident in the United States. An estimated 17 thousand people are brought to the country as slaves each year, a number that parallels the average annual homicide rate. While nearly 75 percent of murder cases are resolved, only one-half of one percent of human slavery cases are identified and closed, Bales said.

But many variables affect the persecution of slaveholders in the United States and other countries. Victims of human slavery are often unwilling to participate in the process, Grant said.

“You can’t successfully prosecute these types of perpetrators without the statement of the victim, and (the victims) are scared,” she said. “They’re hesitant to talk because their families might be at risk, or they’re threatened. They’re extremely vulnerable.”

Awareness and activism is a prescription to aid the oppressed and help them overcome their situations, Williams said. Interstate highways 95 and 40 enable the easy transportation of slaves within the state of North Carolina, and much smuggling goes undetected.

“We must advocate (information) and increase awareness,” Williams said. “Nothing good will ever happen without greater awareness.”