Combatting Human Trafficking and Slavery

Each year, on 8 February, the Catholic Church around the world marks the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking. The theme chosen for this year is “Journeying in Dignity,” through which the faithful are called to recognize the processes that lead to the exploitation of people, to discover the daily paths of their search for freedom and dignity, to promote anti-trafficking actions and to build a culture of encounter.

Slavery, in all its ugly forms, has been part of human history since ancient times. Tragically, that is still the case, with the exception that for the first time in history there is a global movement to eradicate it.

The United Nations has been involved with combatting what it refers to as “trafficking in persons” (human trafficking) and, more globally, “contemporary forms of slavery.” Although the evil of human trafficking is clear to most people, for many reasons — such as the complexities of international law and the incredible variety of forms it assumes — trafficking can be very complex. While the general public tends to be familiar with women and girls being kidnapped and forced into the sex trade, that is only one of the many forms of human trafficking and often each form is treated differently in law. Thus, while the problem is clear, it is also nuanced. People involved in advocacy and in the attempt to eradicate human trafficking often have to focus on many different, relatively narrow legal issues.

The extent of human trafficking is astounding. The 2022 U.N. Global Report on Trafficking in Persons is a detailed report on human trafficking in all its forms. Among other indications, the report shows an increase in trafficking of children. In recent years, the following changes have occurred in the population of trafficked persons: women, down from 74 percent to 42 percent; girls, up from 10 percent to 18 percent; men, up from 13 percent to 23 percent, and boys, up from 3 percent to 17 percent. While most of this activity is for the sex trade, a sizable amount is also for forced labor.

These statistics are important and indeed crucial; they can also be numbing. That is why the church’s International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking is so important. Such a day promotes several things that are significant, focusing on the entire phenomenon in all its complexity. The main emphasis of the day, however, is less on the strategies involved than on the humanity of the people affected by trafficking.

A Day of Prayer and Awareness also reminds us that, while human trafficking is a national and international legal issue, it is at its roots a human problem. It is a terrible crime and, for people of faith, it is also a sin and a challenge. As believers, we are called by each of our religious traditions to strive for justice and to advocate for the marginalized and oppressed.

Human trafficking is an international legal issue and a humanitarian emergency. Today, the church reminds us how it is a profoundly moral and spiritual challenge.

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