Pope Francis joined religious and world leaders in calling for an end to human trafficking on 30 July, the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.
He tweeted: “I invite everyone to work together with the victims to transform the economy of trafficking into an economy of care.”
Between 20 and 40 million people are estimated to be trapped in modern slavery today, an illegal billion-dollar business where traffickers exploit vulnerable people for labour, prostitution, and trade in organs.
Talitha Kum, the global Anti-Trafficking Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons, launched a campaign entitled #CareAgainstTrafficking last week.
Its international coordinator, Sr Gabriella Bottani, urged people of goodwill “to come together and tackle the systemic causes of human trafficking, to transform the economy of trafficking into an economy of care”. She asked governments “to commit to long-term support for survivors”, including access to education, jobs, justice and healthcare.
The United Nations designated July 30 as the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons in 2013 to raise awareness and gain support for the prevention of human trafficking, implement protocols to protect victims, and to penalize traffickers.
Human trafficking is a crime that exploits women, children and men for numerous purposes including forced labor and sex. Globally countries are detecting and reporting more victims, and are convicting more traffickers. This can be the result of increased capacity to identify victims and/or an increased number of trafficked victims.
Every country in the world is affected by human trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit, or destination for victims. Traffickers the world over continue to target women and girls. The vast majority of detected victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and 35 percent of those trafficked for forced labor are female. Conflict further exacerbates vulnerabilities, with armed groups exploiting civilians and traffickers targeting forcibly displaced people. Data also shows that trafficking happens all around us as the share of persons trafficked within their own country has doubled in recent years to 58 percent of all detected victims, according to the 2018 UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.
As we commemorate the 7th World Day Against Trafficking in Persons amidst the COVID-19 pandemic we are especially concerned about how children are now more vulnerable today to online exploitation. Globally, school closures have not only impeded children’s access to education but also to a safe environment. Children confined to a home with abusive relatives may become victims of live-stream sex abuse and other forms of cybersex trafficking.
Perpetrators are taking advantage of children spending more unsupervised time online. Authorities in Australia report that child predators have created and shared an online grooming manual describing ways to manipulate and exploit the increased number of children at home and online during Covid-19.
With the global economic downturn, children are forced onto the streets in search of basics like food and money, making them accessible to human traffickers and other predators. The same applies to children fleeing home because of domestic abuse, which has spiked globally during the pandemic.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the United States has experienced a 106% increase in global reports of suspected child sexual exploitation to its CyberTipline compared with March 2019. The Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation reports between October 2019 and March 2020 calls increased by 123% compared with the same period the previous year.2 In India, there has been a 95% rise in traffic searching for child sexual abuse content, and Europol has also witnessed an escalation.1
The resources below may help families educate themselves on the dangers of sexual exploitation and how to stay safe online, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic:
UNICEF has created an online guide about COVID-19 and its implications for protecting children online which may be accessed by clicking
May this World Day Against Trafficking in Persons be an opportunity for us to learn, pray, and act to end human trafficking and protect children during this time of heightened vulnerability due to the pandemic!
Human trafficking has many faces. Imagine a teenage girl pressured into prostitution by her boyfriend to pay the rent; a foreign national tricked into domestic servitude with promises of a better life; a fisherman trapped at sea working for wages that never materialize. These are just a few accounts of the estimated 40 million people who are enslaved across the world today.
July 30 marks the United Nations’ World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, a time to raise awareness around human trafficking and amplify efforts to stop it. With the COVID-19 pandemic contributing to the retraumatization of survivors and increasing risk among individuals experiencing disadvantage, the need is even greater to shine a light on the work Catholic sisters are doing to address the realities of human trafficking, both domestically and abroad.
Human Trafficking: The Legacy of 400 Years of Racism and Colonialism
By Jennifer Reyes Lay, Executive Director of USCSAHT
As we approach the annual World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on July 30th, it is important to reflect not only on the present reality of human trafficking in our communities, country, and the wider world, but also the longer history that has brought us to this particular moment in time. In order to work more effectively in realizing a world without slavery with a network of services and resources to inform the public, prevent the crime and assist survivors to achieve a fulfilling life, we have to understand the intersecting systems of oppression that fuel the demand to exploit the bodies of vulnerable human beings, and what makes them vulnerable in the first place. The current reality of human trafficking, often referred to as modern-day slavery, continues the persistent legacy of slavery and exploitation going back to European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade over 400 years ago.
Throughout the world, centuries of European colonization spread the beliefs and practices of white supremacy which deemed those with darker skin and different worldviews as “savage,” less-than-human, even equivalent to animals, and therefore could be used and abused for the profit and sexual gratification of the powerful or simply exterminated. It is estimated that between 5-10 million indigenous people were murdered and hundreds of thousands more forcibly removed from their homelands during colonization in the United States. In addition to the genocide of indigenous communities this system of dehumanization and exploitation showed up in the transatlantic slave trade where it is estimated between 10-12 million Africans were kidnapped and forced into slavery, about 10% of whom were brought to what is now the United States. At the time of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, there were an estimated 4 million enslaved persons of African descent in the United States. These enslaved Africans had to endure not only brutal forced labor conditions, but also torture, sexual abuse, and rape at the hands of their masters and other wealthy white people.
The persistence of white supremacy and an abuse of black and indigenous bodies continued even after slavery was officially declared illegal. Wealthy white landowners, business owners, and politicians still found ways to abuse and exploit these populations for their own benefit and with impunity. Racism against the Black community and Indigenous communities has been passed down through generations and woven into the fabric of society in the U.S. through laws, customs, beliefs, and behaviors. It is no surprise then, that racist and colonialist beliefs and behaviors also show up today in crimes like human trafficking.
While human trafficking impacts every demographic (all races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, ages, etc.) we know that traffickers target those who are vulnerable. Generations of systemic racism has created stark disparities in all sectors of life: health, education, economics, housing, and employment. This puts communities of color and indigenous communities at greater risk of exploitation due to greater vulnerability. While African-Americans make up just 12.7% of the total population, they account for 40% of trafficking victims, and 77% of child sex trafficking victims are non-white.Statistics also show that the majority of buyers are wealthy white men, and the majority of sex trafficking victims are poor girls of color. Survivors of sex trafficking have shared that white girls and women are paid more for the same services, and women of color are often forced to carry out the racist fantasies of purchasers (watch this powerful webinar from World Without Exploitation for more survivor perspectives). Young white girls who are trafficked tend to get more media attention than young black girls and indigenous women who go missing or who are found murdered. There is not the same investment in finding girls from these communities or prosecuting their abductors and murderers. And even when victims of trafficking are discovered by law enforcement, those from minority communities are more likely to be treated as criminals rather than victims. For more perspectives on the way that racism impacts human trafficking check out our February issue of Stop Trafficking.
While most of us would like to think we are not personally complicit in the slavery that still exists today, the reality is quite different. Globalized capitalism and consumerism has created a system of demand for a plethora of cheap goods and services. Many of the products that we buy have parts that were cultivated or assembled from slave labor around the world, including child labor. It is possible that the food you eat was grown and harvested by slave labor or the services you purchase are fulfilled by those who are victims of trafficking. You can check and see an estimate of “how many slaves work for you” at the website SlaveryFootprint.org. We also continue to hold harmful bias in our unconscious as a result of living in a culture of white supremacy. We have to work intentionally to notice and transform the harmful ideas we still hold about certain people and communities that allow us to turn a blind eye to their suffering as victims of human trafficking.
As the Executive Director of a national Catholic organization, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the complicity of the institutional Catholic Church, including congregations of Women Religious, in perpetuating and benefitting from this long history of slavery, racism, and colonialism. Historically the Roman Catholic Church gave its theological seal of approval to forcibly enter the sovereign lands of indigenous communities and economically benefitted from the genocide of indigenous populations, stealing their land and natural resources, forcibly converting them, and buying and selling enslaved Africans, using their forced labor to build churches, schools, and monasteries.
While the U.S. Bishops and Leadership Conference of Women Religious have made compelling statements and commitments in recent years to face this history honestly and transform these harmful structures in the present, we know there is still always more work to do. We join in this difficult work of healing and transformation with humility and an open heart.
We are also aware that abuse and exploitation, particularly of vulnerable children, is not only something that happens in secular society, but is unfortunately a reality that continues to plague our faith communities as well. We stand committed to the dignity and liberation of all people, calling out all forms of exploitation and abuse, standing with survivors, and holding those responsible accountable.
I invite you, particularly if you are white, to take time this month leading up to the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, to learn more about this history of slavery, racism and colonialism; lament for the harm done; repent for our complicity both past and present; and begin to make reparations so that this legacy of slavery, abuse, and exploitation finally ends. Reparations for US Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking looks like sharing our time and resources with those who continue to be impacted by these legacies of slavery, racism, and colonialism; challenging the cultures and beliefs that allow this crime to continue, centering and lifting up the voices of those directly impacted; and amplifying the reality of the Black girls and Indigenous girls and women whose stories, abuse, and murders do not get the same attention as white girls and women.
In the words of Audre Lorde, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” I cannot be free while 40 million people around the world continue to be trapped in situations of trafficking. Cultivating a culture where we recognize and honor this reality of interconnection and shared liberation inherently defies a culture of trafficking and racism that seeks to separate and dehumanize. May we stay ever vigilant in our commitment to the liberation of all people, to the particular work still yet to be done to decolonize our minds and practices, and root out all forms of racism and white supremacy. Ending slavery is everyone’s work and it is ongoing work. Let us do it together.