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Heed the words of Pope Francis on today’s slave trade, implores a sister of Loreto. Her extensive experience of helping its victims will be on hand for senior priests and police chiefs at an international conference on human trafficking led by Cardinal Vincent Nichols in Rome next week
Trafficking in human beings is a phenomenon that is not talked about easily. It is a crime that happens in secret, and to report it demands great courage on the part of the victims, who can be men or boys, women or girls. The victims may be educated or uneducated but the one factor that is common to all is vulnerability.
We see many reasons: the lack of social safety nets, dysfunctional families, economic poverty, patriarchal cultures, political instability and war, natural disasters, criminal activity, immigration status, violence and neglect within the family, and lack of education.
The trafficker is driven by the craving for power and control, by greed and by the desire for easy money, influenced by consumerism. The main challenge faced by those of us who work against this form of slavery today is to confront moral behaviour and cultural values. There is a need to try to bring about societal change so that those on the margins of society are included and empowered, experience self-esteem, are aware of their human dignity and know their human rights. Society has broken down when it does not protect its most vulnerable members.
In 2005, the Archbishop of Tirana requested that my religious order, IBVM (Loreto), focused on this phenomenon in our new mission in Albania. Girls were being moved in huge numbers from Albania to Italy by traffickers using speedboats to transport their victims across the Adriatic Sea. But the problem is not confined to Italy. In 2012, five per cent of trafficked victims in the United Kingdom were Albanian, and we believe the percentage is now much higher.
Albanian girls are trafficked by “lover boys”, who look out for the isolated girl in a village. This will be a girl who has been trapped into an arranged marriage she does not want, and who is living in poverty. The “lover boy” will befriend her and ply her with gifts, get her false documents, take her to a beautiful country, continue to deceive her with gifts and move her on to the UK, where she will be sold for more than €1,000 (currently about £830).
From this point of sale the girl is brutally abused, endures multiple rape and is drugged. Now she is forced to see up to 10 men a day. All the money goes to the trafficker and only the help of a client, or escape, offers freedom.
At the start of this century, the Consolata Missionary sister, Eugenia Bonetti, was already developing networks of religious communities in Italy to tackle this phenomenon. The need to study this modern-day slavery led to my participation in 2005 at a conference for religious sisters in Baltimore, in the United States. Laypeople have also been involved; the next year in the UK, the National Board of Catholic Women highlighted the problem ahead of the World Cup in Germany, because of the demand for sex tourism at global sports events.
Since then the networks of women Religious working in this field have grown and multiplied. They are now in every continent, in every country of the world. The International Union of Superiors General (UISG) in Rome declared many years ago that the issue of trafficking in human persons needed to be at the forefront of mission for all congregations of female Religious. It did not take long for the women Religious to take up this baton.
Now women Religious are working directly with the victims: in shelters; reaching out to them in poverty-ridden remote regions; working to support victims on the streets. We work with those vulnerable to domestic violence, whose families are shattered, leaving many children on the streets, trying to empower the vulnerable and encourage men and women to be economically independent. Unsurprisingly women Religious are closely watched by the traffickers.
UISG has set up a full-time worker co-ordinating the international network of Religious against the trafficking in human persons. Its European network, Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation (Renate, www.renate-europe.net), brings Religious from 19 European countries together in cross-border collaboration to protect the victims, give safe shelter and to work in rehabilitation programmes.
For those of us working with victims, the conference on human trafficking being held next week at the Vatican is of immense importance. We hope that there will be an agreed mandate between national police forces to develop strong cross-border collaboration. It is hoped that the laws and regulations in the UK will be changed to provide stronger protection. At the moment the mandatory safe haven for the victims of trafficking is 45 days. We would like to see it increased so that they have time enough to heal and perhaps become empowered to denounce the trafficker.
People working in the travel and tourism industry, in places vulnerable to labour trafficking such as employment agencies, need to have safeguards that protect the potential victim. Children and minors who are in care need a much stronger support network. They are the most vulnerable to being trafficked.
For Religious, it is the work of God to walk alongside the victim and to expose the evil. Pope Francis says many things about this crime and perhaps we all need to reflect on his words from Evangelii Gaudium: “I have always been distressed at the lot of those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking. How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry, ‘Where is your brother?’ (Genesis 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labour.
“Let us not look the other way. There is greater complicity than we think. The issue involves everyone! This infamous network of crime is now well established in our cities, and many people have blood on their hands as a result of their comfortable and silent complicity.”