In April of this year the Vatican hosted the Conference on Combating Human Trafficking, bringing together both law enforcement professionals and social workers involved in the battle against the exploitation and commodification of vulnerable people. Pope Francis addressed the gathering and deplored human trafficking as, “an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ. It is a crime against humanity.”[i]
This is not the first time the Holy Father has broached the issue of human trafficking. In December of 2013 while welcoming new ambassadors to the Vatican, Pope Francis took the opportunity to remind these world representatives that every nation must contribute to the efforts to eradicate this modern form of slavery:
“Human trafficking is a crime against humanity. We must unite our efforts to free the victims and stop this increasingly aggressive crime which threatens not only individuals but the basic values of society and of international security and justice, to say nothing of the economy, and the fabric of the family and our coexistence.”[ii]
The U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Ken Hackett, praised the Holy Father for speaking out against human trafficking and calling attention to this global travesty.[iii] The efforts of Pope Francis were even highlighted in the recently released United States State Department 2014 Trafficking in Person (TIP) Report.
In order to heed the Holy Father’s call for action against human trafficking it is essential to understand the breadth of the problem. The TIP Report defines human trafficking as: sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.[iv]
Note that human trafficking may or may not involve the transport of a victim from one location to another. The key criteria are the use of force, fraud or coercion to subject a person to sexual or labor exploitation for the commercial benefit of others. No country, ethnicity, culture, or socioeconomic status is immune to this modern day form of slavery.
The TIP report echoes the clarion call of Pope Francis and focuses efforts on the prosecution of traffickers, the protection of victims, and the primary prevention of human trafficking. There are success stories in the disruption of human trafficking networks. In late June of this year, the United States arrested nearly 300 pimps and rescued 168 victims of child sex trafficking in an operation that covered 106 cities. In a press conference to announce the arrests, FBI director James B. Corney declared, “These are our kids. On our street corners. Our truck stops. Our motels. These are America’s children…our children are not for sale.”[v]
But what about the rest of the world’s vulnerable men, women, and children? The TIP report shows that there are far more countries who are ignoring the problem than there are nations that are confronting it. The report rates countries as either Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 watch list, or Tier 3; with Tier 1 countries meeting minimum standards to fight human trafficking and Tier 3 countries showing little or no effective measures to combat the issue. Major world players like Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia, are either in the Tier 2 watch list or in Tier 3.
Trained law enforcement personnel are critical for the protection of human trafficking victims. As noted in the recent arrests in the United States, 168 children were involved in illegal sexual activities like pornography and prostitution. It is very common for traffickers to involve their victims in criminal activity in order to make the victims afraid to report their situation to the police. They are told that contacting authorities will get them thrown in jail because they are guilty of crimes. Law enforcement must be able to distinguish these victims of human trafficking from common criminals and offer them assurances of safety.
In addition, protection of victims requires awareness in communities. The TIP report highlights the story of Shyima Hall, who at the age of 8 was sold by her parents to a wealthy Egyptian couple then smuggled into the United States. For four years she was physically abused and required to work up to 20 hours a day for the couple. She was rescued after an alert neighbor filed a complaint with the local child welfare agency.[vi] Everyone needs to be aware that exploitation can occur anywhere, including in our own comfortable neighborhoods. We must not be afraid to speak out if something looks awry.
Primary prevention of human trafficking is complicated and there are no easy answers. All forms of sexual and labor exploitation flourish in areas with economic underdevelopment and instability. Parents do not sell their children unless they are in a state of economic desperation. Therefore, establishing a free and just economy that offers all the opportunity to work at a just wage that will support their needs is essential. Unfortunately, in far too many countries the will to extend economic opportunity to all is lacking. There must be greater diplomatic and economic pressure put on countries that do not comply with minimum standards of protection against human trafficking.
It does no good for the United States to compile a 400-page analysis of human trafficking and then ignore the results when it is politically expedient. For example, as United States Congressman Chris Smith points out, China was inexplicably upgraded from a Tier 3 country to a Tier 2 Watch List country in spite of the fact that the report explicitly points to China’s government policies that continue to foster human trafficking.[vii]
It is well established that the incidences of human trafficking increase sharply in connection with major sporting events like the Olympics or the World Cup soccer tournament. Sporting federations like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or FIFA should make a country’s standing on human trafficking a significant when awarding the right to host major events. It is unconscionable that Russia, a Tier 3 country, was selected to host the 2014 Winter Olympics as well as the 2018 World Cup. Quatar is on the Tier 2 Watch List and is scheduled to host the 2022 World Cup.
Individual consumers also have both an opportunity and a responsibility to prevent human trafficking. Our desire for low cost goods must not lead us to turn a blind eye to the suffering that accompanies the production of those goods. Many corporations now advertise their environmentally friendly practices because consumers are sensitive to the issue. We must become equally attuned to the labor practices of corporation supply chains. We should be willing to support companies that can certify the production of their product did not involve exploited workers even if it means paying more.
Pope Francis has made clear that this issue cannot be ignored:
“What is called for, then, is a shared sense of responsibility and fi
rmer political will to gain victory on this front. Responsibility is required towards those who have fallen victim to trafficking in order to protect their rights, to guarantee their safety and that of their families, and to prevent the corrupt and criminals from escaping justice and having the last word over the lives of others.”
Let us then take to heart his exhortation. Governments, businesses, and individuals all share a responsibility to prosecute the traffickers, protect the victims, and prevent the institution of human trafficking. Each of us must do what we can to confront and combat this assault on human dignity and affront to the sanctity of all human life.