Pope Francis begins fight against human trafficking and slavery

Children are common victims of forced slavery and trafficking.

Children are common victims of forced slavery and trafficking.

BY KERRI LENARTOWICK

ROME — Experts from around the world gathered at the Vatican this past weekend to investigate and discuss the growing practice of “modern slavery” in the form of human trafficking.

The preparatory workshop “Trafficking in Human Beings: Modern Slavery” was held Nov. 2-3.

Called at the request of Pope Francis, the conference was jointly hosted by the Pontifical Academy for the Sciences and the World Federation of the Catholic Medical Association.

Speaking at a Nov. 4 press briefing, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said that Pope Francis “had recommended” that this seminar be held.

Bishop Sorondo explained that, when Pope Francis was still archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had worked closely with those fighting human trafficking, and so “he knew the problem quite directly.”

On the morning of the first day of the conference, Pope Francis told Bishop Sorondo, “What is being done is very important, because this is valuable material, and I would like to do something with this.”

Human trafficking is a growing global phenomenon. A 2012 report by the United Nations points to International Labor Organization estimates that 20.9 million people were victims of forced labor globally between 2002-2011, although exact numbers are unknown.

The purpose of the recent Vatican workshop was to “examine human trafficking and modern slavery in order to establish the real state of this phenomenon and an agenda to combat this heinous crime,” according to a document issued by conference organizers.

Dr. Henrietta Williams, president of the Association of Catholic Medical Practitioners of Nigeria, was one of 18 experts invited to present at the study seminar.

She explained that the Pope’s desire was to “get together a group of experts in different disciplines,” because “it’s not a problem that one country or the lawyers or the doctors or the social scientists can solve.”

“It’s a problem that everyone has to come together (on),” Williams said, “preferably from all the faiths, all the government institutions, and we want to find out exactly what it is, why it cannot be controlled, why it is getting worse, what are the factors that promote trafficking.”

Juan Jose Llach, director of the Center for Studies on Government, Business, Society and Economy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, also spoke about the conference’s discussion of the many “new forms” of human trafficking, which are “expanding to involve children and adolescents.” He said participants had looked at the many risk factors for trafficking, including poverty, lack of education, disintegrated families and weak or corrupt law enforcement.

However, the many problems with trafficking were not only considered. Experts and practitioners in fields such as law, medicine and sociology offered practical solutions they had found to be successful in their own work.

Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland of the London Metropolitan Police, for example, spoke of a new program in place at Scotland Yard that works with victims of trafficking over a period of time, helping enable them to testify in court.

Since the program has been in place, “the number of guilty pleas is on the rise,” because many criminals do not want to face such testimony by their victims.

Upon the close of the weekend, conference organizers issued a “joint statement based on the suggestions presented by the participants,” which included proposals for media, religious institutions, civil organizations and business sectors to work together in order to combat human trafficking.

Organizers hope to eventually issue a statement that includes more specific proposals. Bishop Sorondro indicated that he believes Pope Francis will act on this issue as well.

According to Williams, the first step “is to look at the problem very deeply,” in order to find solutions.

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