Church Has Moral, Spiritual Role in Combating Human Trafficking

Experts Gather in the Vatican for International Conference

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Because of its global position of moral leadership, the Catholic Church has an essential role in combating the growing reality of human trafficking worldwide.

This was the opinion expressed by some of the participants in a workshop titled “Trafficking in Human Beings: Modern Slavery,” which took place Saturday and Sunday in Vatican City.

The gathering, sponsored by the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences in collaboration with the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, was organized in response to a request from Pope Francis.

The presentations given over the two-day “preparatory workshop” explored a variety of topics relating to this modern form of slavery, including sexual exploitation, the trafficking of women and children, and the implications of legalized prostitution in the context of human trafficking.

“Human trafficking is real,” Dr. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo told ZENIT, warning that the criminal practice is on the rise. Since her appointment in 2008 as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, she said she has “met hundreds of victims, if not thousands of victims.”

Ezeilo said there needs to be a “moral voice to condemn this heinous crime of human trafficking,” one with a “high moral threshold.”

Opening doors

The UN official noted how this workshop, which is the basis for a forthcoming document on human trafficking and how to combat it, is a step in the right direction. She said that bringing together experts in interdisciplinary fields in this forum opens the door to endless possibilities “in terms of a way forward, in terms of how we can work together to find solutions, how we can take action as a collective, how the Church can show great leadership in combating the ugly phenomena of human trafficking.” It also helps in “bringing [up] the basic issue of human rights and human dignity at the core of any human trafficking initiative.”

Ezeilo was not the only participant to point out that cases of human trafficking are on the rise, and to call for the moral leadership the Church in this area. Dr. Anne T. Gallagher, an Australian scholar and legal advisor who has been working in the field for years, told ZENIT that “there’s been so much work on human trafficking now for so many years, but we do know that the problem’s not improving, and it’s quite probably getting worse. Moral and spiritual leadership from the Vatican would be terribly important in moving this issue forward among governments – the international community – but also among civil society and Churches.”

In order to turn the tide on human trafficking, she said, there are concrete and complex challenges that need to be addressed. “We have the challenge of getting a strong criminal justice response,” she said. “We need to figure out ways to protect victims of trafficking much better, and to give them the justice to which they are entitled under law. We need to address the vulnerability that makes some people more susceptible to trafficking than others. And I think we need to address the demands for the goods and services that are produced by trafficking. And really, this involves us all.”

There is also the need to push “states to try and end the impunity that’s associated with trafficking,” she continued. “This is a high-profit, low-risk crime, so we have to try and change the game around this. That’s very important.”

Money and sex

In one of the presentations, lawyer Melissa Holman of Austin, Texas, challenged governments to go beyond enforcing anti-trafficking laws, and to evaluate the connection between legalized prostitution and human trafficking.

“I feel like governments need to be clearer about the fact that there is a link between legalized prostitution and the illicit sex trade,” she said. “Countries, like America, that are in a position of economic power through different treaties and statutes have authority, but they also a moral authority.”

“Their ability to combat sex trafficking should also encompass taking into account whether countries have commercial sex industries,” she said.

Holman explained how the United States provides a series of rankings based on a given country’s efforts in combating sex trafficking.

“In making determinations of how countries should be ranked, [the US tends to] turn a blind eye to whether [those countries] have commercial sex industries.”

She went on to explain that countries that are “sourced countries of trafficked women” are punished more harshly than “countries of destination” – such as Spain, Australia, or the Netherlands – which are listed as meeting all of the minimum standards, but nonetheless have substantial sex industries.

On a different note, Holman said how positive it is that “Pope Francis has created this initiative and has drawn so much attention to the issue of sex trafficking. The fact that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is taking it so seriously is wonderful. The more publicity you can have the better.”

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Ann Schneible

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