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Map: The world’s 36 million slaves

Share of each country's population that is enslaved. Click to enlarge. Data Source: Walk Free Global Slavery Index 2014. (Rick Noack/ The Washington Post)

To many Americans, slavery might seem like a problem from the distant past. However, it is very much a present reality, as a new report shows. Nearly 36 million people in 167 surveyed countries live in modern slavery. Such exploitation is not unique to Asian or African countries and is even present in the United States where a report released by the Australia-based Walk Free estimates about 60,000 slaves exist in the shadows of American society.

Modern slavery can take many forms that are not necessarily part of more traditional definitions of slavery. The authors of the Global Slavery Index broadly define modern slavery as involving "one person possessing or controlling another person in such as a way as to significantly deprive that person of their individual liberty, with the intention of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer or disposal." This includes people subjected to sex trafficking or indentured by debt bondage.

The number of 36 million slaves is about twice the amount estimated by the International Labor Organization in 2012. Last year, Walk Free estimated the existence of 30 million slaves worldwide, but the rise does not necessarily reflect an actual increase in slavery within the last 12 months. Instead, the varying numbers are due to a change in methodology, now taking into account a larger variety of forms of slavery.

Countries with most slaves relative to population

The worst-performing nation in the world is Mauritania where about four 4 percent of the country's population is "enslaved." Previous studies have put the ratio at an even higher level there. Uzbekistan -- a country with a government often accused of conscripting its population into forced labor -- is ranked second (3.9%), followed by Haiti (2.3%), Qatar (1.3%), India (1.1%) and Pakistan (1.13%). You can find the full ranking on the Global Slavery Index's website.

Haiti stands out on the list because of its proximity to the United States. Since the 2010 earthquake, Haiti has been in an even more precarious economic situation and many parents have sold their children into forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation.

Gallup, a Washington-based research company, concludes that poverty is indeed a driving factor behind the prevalence of slavery. "But even within countries with similar incomes, there are varying degrees of modern slavery," the researchers comment on the latest report by Australia's Walk Free group.

Bahrain, for instance, has a relatively high ratio of slaves (0.71%), but a much higher per capita income compared to nations that rank equally in the Global Slavery Index.

Apart from the slaves versus population ratio, there is another way to look at modern slavery:

Countries with most slaves in total numbers

As WorldViews noted a year ago when the Index was released for the first time, the map below might be the most important to the group Walk Free, which says its goal is to eradicate slavery in the space of one generation. This map shows which countries have the most slaves overall and thus which governments must do the most to reduce the global number of slaves.

India tops the ranking by far with a total of 14 million slaves, followed by China (3.2 million), Pakistan (2.1 million), Uzbekistan (1.2 million), Russia (1 million) and Nigeria (830,000).

About 60,000 people suffer under modern-day slavery in the United States. According to the authors of the report, in the U.S. "men, women and children are exploited as forced laborers, and in the commercial sex industry -- In 2013, potential modern slavery cases were reported in fifty states." The report explains that slaves are forced to perform domestic work and home healthcare, they work in the food industry, as well as in construction, agriculture, nursing, factories and garment-manufacturing, among other sectors.

Neighboring Mexico struggles with about 270,000 slaves, and Japan surprises with a staggering 240,000 enslaved people -- a number that is the highest in any developed country. Japan is primarily confronted with sex slavery, a problem which has not been tackled seriously enough in the past by the country's government, as rights groups have repeatedly criticized.

However, compared to other large Asian nations, Japan's high number of slaves is actually below average.