ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Crime Against Humanity

The church takes on the fight to end human trafficking

When Sister Abby Avelino, M.M., arrived in Japan to work with migrants and refugees, she quickly learned that her work would be intertwined with supporting people whose status made them vulnerable to human trafficking.

“They were recruited, they were promised so many things, but they ended up being either forced for sexual exploitation [or] sometimes they were deceived,” said Sister Abby, a member of the Maryknoll Sisters.

For instance, recruiters would tell migrants they would work in a hotel, but then would place them in the fishing or agriculture industries under more difficult conditions, she explained.

Victims of labor trafficking, frequently in the agriculture or fishing industries — 29 percent and 28 percent of forced labor cases, respectively — are often trapped in their work situation. Debt bondage is the most common practice that keeps them tied to these employers, but “the threat of violence” or punishment are also widespread tactics, according to the U.S. Office on Trafficking in Persons.

The United Nations defines trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit.” 

“Vulnerable people will sometimes be forced to do things to support themselves and their families that they would not ordinarily do.”

The gender of trafficking victims has shifted in recent decades. From 2004 to 2020, according to the same U.N. report, the percentage of women trafficked decreased by 32 percent, while the percentage of girls increased by 8 percent. The percentage of trafficked men also increased by 10 percent and by 14 percent for boys. However, women and children remain more likely to experience violence in trafficking situations.

According to a report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, issued in 2022, trafficking for forced labor (38.8 percent) and for sexual exploitation (38.7 percent) account for the bulk of trafficking cases. The latter is frequently regarded as synonymous with trafficking, but the reality is more expansive and nuanced. People are also trafficked for forced criminal activity (10.2 percent), forced marriage (0.9 percent), exploitative begging (0.7 percent), illegal adoption (0.3 percent), and organ removal (0.2 percent).

Global crises, such as war, environmental disasters or degradation and economic instability, cause migration and are common drivers of trafficking. Other drivers include poverty, abandonment or family separation, lack of economic opportunities and debt bondage.

“If you’re poor, you’re vulnerable. If you’re poor, how’s your housing? How’s your education? How’s your food?” said Sister Jeanne Christensen, R.S.M., justice advocate and co-founder of U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Trafficking. “Vulnerable people will sometimes be forced to do things to support themselves and their families that they would not ordinarily do.”

Nayiri Arslanian, a social worker with Wells of Hope in Lebanon, holds up an anti-trafficking sign, alongside a trafficking survivor. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

Sister Jeanne recalled a comment made by two Filipino seminarians during a presentation she gave on labor trafficking and worker rights: “But, sister, that’s the only way we can earn money to support families.”

“How do you answer that one?” she asked rhetorically. “That’s the catch-22. But we still have to address it.”

The efforts of Catholic religious women in combating human trafficking, particularly pertaining to forms that target women and children, picked up after the 2001 plenary assembly of the International Union of Superiors General (U.I.S.G.), when they stated their commitment to “work in solidarity” and “address insistently at every level the abuse and sexual exploitation of women and children.”

The U.I.S.G. encouraged the creation of organizations and networks of religious sisters against human trafficking, including Talitha Kum, a Rome-based “network of networks” that formed in 2009.

Talitha Kum extends into 97 countries across five continents and is comprised of religious women, their congregations and anti-trafficking organizations, as well as other local and international partners. In 2022, the network reached more than 560,000 people globally, including 34,463 trafficking victims and survivors.

Sister Abby has served as the international coordinator for Talitha Kum since 2022, after 16 years in Japan and one year as the regional representative of Asia on Talitha Kum’s International Coordination Committee.

These networks are active in advocacy, prevention, education, response, reintegration and empowerment. Many take an advocacy approach to address systemic weaknesses and the root causes of trafficking.

“If we don’t work on the systems that continually oppress, you can do charity work, but can never really get to the point where the dignity and the worth of each person … cannot be oppressed by those systems,” said Sister Catherine Ferguson, S.N.J.M., founder of UNANIMA International, a U.N.-accredited organization addressing issues pertaining to homelessness.

African migrants set sail for Europe on a crowded boat.
African migrants set sail for Europe. Seeking prosperity abroad, migrants will sometimes enter Europe or Arab countries illegally through human smugglers, putting them at risk for human trafficking. (photo: Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images)

She likened the structure of anti-trafficking work to a nesting doll, with the smallest doll representing individual charity, “where people are just loving to each other,” and the largest representing work at the international level, including at the United Nations. The other dolls in the series represent the various levels of anti-trafficking work, including education.

“If any of the pieces are not working for the benefit of all, then the whole thing is contaminated, vitiated and not necessarily functioning well,” she said.

Father Elias D. Mallon, S.A., CNEWA’s primary representative at the U.N., noted that slavery was part of the Christian world for centuries.

In the past, the Catholic Church aligned itself with Catholic countries, such as Spain, France and Portugal, which played a major role in the Atlantic Slave Trade, he said. In 1814, Pope Pius VII condemned the slave trade in private letters to European rulers, but it took another 25 years for Pope Gregory XVI to condemn it publicly. Then, in 1888, nearly 50 years later, Pope Leo XIII condemned slave holding in his encyclical “In plurimis,” and identified slavery as evil.

Today, the Holy See strongly opposes all forms of slavery and trafficking, he said. Pope Francis clearly expresses this stance, as did his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Archbishop Gabriele Caccia also makes this position known on the international stage as the permanent observer of the Holy See to the U.N.

“They were recruited, they were promised so many things, but they ended up being … forced for sexual exploitation.”

Having described human trafficking as “a crime against humanity,” Pope Francis in November 2014 designated 8 February as the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking.

Care for the vulnerable and the dignity of every person are values central to the anti-trafficking work of women religious and other Catholic groups, such as CNEWA.

“In my visits to our regional offices and where we work with partners, I have been repeatedly introduced to the work of CNEWA on behalf of these victims,” said Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, CNEWA president. “I have observed the heroic work in CNEWA-sponsored facilities of religious women on behalf of these victims.”

“These groups reflect what I hope will always be attached to the identity of CNEWA,” he said, “that this pontifical agency is an agency of healing and hope.”

Read this article in our digital format here.

Olivia Poust is assistant editor of ONE.

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