Church and police authorities and non-government organizations (NGOs) came together recently in the Vatican under the Santa Martha Group headed by Cardinal Vincent Nicholas to discuss and share their experience and listen to each other. They discussed greater cooperation in combating the global scourge and horrific crimes of human trafficking of vulnerable people into modern slavery. Such cooperation is absolutely essential to find an efficient global response and local action to save the victims and challenge the criminals.
 
Human trafficking is rife in both the developed rich world and in the poorer developing countries and Eastern Europe that are the source of the victims of slavery. Pope Francis has rightly called it a crime against humanity and convened the grouping in his Santa Martha residence. Anti-trafficking is now on top of the Church agenda since hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees fall victim to human traffickers as they seek refuge from violence, oppression and hunger.
  
The Migrants and Refugees Section of the Vatican has addressed the issue at a conference in Rome recently. The conference resolved to come up with a plan of action to guide and inspire both church and civil society to respond to the challenge of human trafficking.
  
Human trafficking is a crime against persons where, by force or false promises, they are taken from one place to another, treated as commodities and objects without human dignity or rights and are exploited and forced to work with little or no pay when placed in a situation of abuse and coerced servitude or slavery.
 
Many people may think forced labor or slavery is a thing of the past when thirteen million Africans were kidnapped, chained and herded like animals into the slave ships and transported across the Atlantic to the cotton and sugar fields of North and South America. There they were made to suffer a life of cruel slavery. The rich of the United States and Europe became richer on their forced unpaid labor.
 
Human trafficking of victims into slavery has never really disappeared. It is all around us. Iit is underground in the criminal world. But the victims could be serving our drinks in a bar or cleaning our hotel room or working in our fields or factories. We seldom think about the condition of the foreign workers in the rich developed world and ignore the enslaved in the sweatshops or trafficked into brothels of Europe or Asia and South America. Here the sex tourists and travelling sex offenders abuse vulnerable women and children enslaved in bonded labor as sex workers.
 
The traffickers earn huge amounts of money with no investment. Today human traffickers facilitate the enslavement of as many as 42 million people worldwide. Men, women and children suffer intolerable conditions of forced unpaid labor and are sold to gang masters, to factories, fishing fleets or sex bars where they are forced to work for very little or no pay.
 
Many are told they have debts to pay for food and transportation and board and lodging.  They are cheated and trapped and become victims of bonded labor with so-called loans that they can never pay. Many are given drugs and made addicted and have debts to the drug dealers and can never escape the clutches of the human slavers. There are threats of violence against them or their families that keep them in a state of docility and fear. There is no consent or freedom of choice in modern slavery. Their life knows no peace, only fear and intimidation.
 
There are over a million children enslaved, many of them are in the sex industry. It is tolerated, accepted and seldom opposed by even Christian populations. The citizens allow sex slavery to thrive by their apathy and indifference. They don’t see the human misery that surrounds them in society as the neon lights of the sex bars flash their lurid invitation to abuse and rape the captured slaves.
 
Husbands are corrupted and broken homes and abandoned families are the result. Child abuse drives children to run away into the streets where traffickers easily recruit them. About 70 percent of sex workers were first sexually abused as children in their own homes.
 
In the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, most brothels and sex bars operate with a government permit. Although prostitution is illegal, it thrives with the connivance of the authorities. The President joked recently in India that he would offer virgins to the tourists to lure them to the Philippines. The victims are subjected to violence, forced abortions and exposed to venereal diseases and HIV-AIDS. 
 
The first thing to do to combat human trafficking is to support preventive education to help people in the supply countries be aware of the dangers of trusting traffickers and labor recruiters. Where the trafficking is prevalent, education campaigns are needed to awaken the conscience and sensitivity of the public to the plight of victims. We must provide the public with an opportunity for easy safe reporting of abuse through a hotline.
 
We can deploy a trained, church-based awareness and rescue team to save victims and educate the public. It should have a paralegal officer to respond to the hotline reports of incidents of human trafficking and modern slavery and child abuse. More professionally run therapeutic centers for the victims are very necessary.

In these homes, the victims can find protection, therapy and comfort and legal assistance. An uncorrupted police unit trained to respond and collect and present evidence to a skilled prosecutor before a just judge is essential to have justice for the victims. The team would give training seminars to parents, teachers, duty bearers and clergy to train them to be aware and teach them to recognize and report human trafficking. We must act together to end this evil and save the victims.

Rev. Shay Cullen is a co-founder of PREDA -- a nonprofit dedicated to the welfare of children and vulnerable women.
 

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