Responding to Pope Francis’ Call to Fight Human Trafficking

IMG_0068Today, July 30, is the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.

Within weeks of the historical papal transition in 2013, Msgr. Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences, received a succinct, hand-written note in Spanish from the newly elected Supreme Pontiff: “I think it would be good to examine human trafficking and modern slavery. Organ trafficking could be examined in connection with human trafficking. Many thanks, Francis.” Those few lines came to signal Pope Francis’ ardent insistence that the Universal Church bring to bear her great moral authority and resources in the global fight against human trafficking. In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis forcefully urges the faithful, and all men and women of goodwill, to radically evaluate unknowing societal and personal complicity in this crime, echoing the convicting question God posed to Cain in the book of Genesis after he had murdered his brother, Abel: “‘Where is your brother?’ (Gen. 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 labor?”

As he prepares for his Apostolic Visit to our country, Pope Francis can be proud of his brother bishops in the United States.  USCCB/Migration and Refugee Services (MRS), since 2013, has been implementing the Amistad Movement, a novel human trafficking prevention program that capitalizes on the gifts and talents of the very communities most at-risk for human trafficking. Firmly anchored in our Catholic commitment to subsidiarity and accompaniment, and utilizing a “train-the-trainer” model, the Amistad Movement uses the Church’s extensive, trusted, grassroots presence within immigrant communities to educate local leaders, pastors, parents, students, activists, and interested community members on precise strategies designed to protect their own against human traffickers.  Therein lies Amistad´s greatest strength: MRS educates immigrant communities in a spirit of self-empowerment that leverages the immigrant leaders’ expertise and strengths to make our human trafficking prevention education as culturally relevant and intelligible as possible. Amistad also fosters collaboration amongst community members and between them and law enforcement and other stakeholders, further fortifying their communities against human trafficking by constructing professional and social networks.

For Catholics who might ask themselves how they can contribute to the Church’s efforts against modern slavery now, MRS anti-trafficking encourages them to request the SHEPHERD toolkit by emailing us at This educational tool provides Catholics with materials to learn about human trafficking from a Catholic perspective using principles from the Social Doctrine of the Church to understand why Catholics in particular are called to raise awareness and respond to human trafficking wherever they can. In addition to information on human trafficking, the toolkit provides a movie-watching guide which can be used as a springboard for discussion and further learning about human trafficking. The kit also has a Stations of the Cross for Victims of Human Trafficking, which can be used to pray for victims, survivors, service providers, and awareness raisers, and to continue educating Catholic communities on modern day slavery.

The Church’s great strength in this fight against human trafficking is its empowering message against slavery of all types, spiritual and physical. In the words of Cardinal Peter Turkson, “Our awareness must expand and extend to the very depths of this evil and its farthest reaches . . . from awareness to prayer . . .  from prayer to solidarity . . . and from solidarity to concerted action, until slavery and trafficking are no more.”

Christopher S. Ljungquist is National Outreach and Education Coordinator, Anti-Trafficking, for the USCCB Department of Migration and Refugee Services.

Lost in the Shadows

Matt Wilch photoAfter checking in with security, the officer led us through the main gate to his car for the trip to the prison-inside-a-prison. We had driven through much of Athens, Greece—a modern city with large, preserved displays of her ancient, heralded past. We travelled to the outskirts of the city, to this prison at the foot of some rocky, dusty hills. As we drove across the grounds to the inner prison we could see that like the outer perimeter, it had a heavy cyclone fence with razor wire on top. It was not old-fashioned barbed wire with metal thorns spaced out every few inches, but razor wire like the jagged teeth of a wide bladed bandsaw twisted in an endless helix along the top of the entire fence.  Inside the fence were a half dozen or so, small, bread-box shaped module homes like the kind used to house people made homeless by a hurricane.

As we entered the compound we saw a sign on the wall warning that if you applied for asylum you would remain inside for at least one year.

At any given time, Athens has some 250,000 undocumented people from other countries, many of them asylum seekers forced to flee from conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.

This prison-inside-a-prison holds forty unaccompanied Afghan boys and youth from ages 12 to 17.   A fellow colleague from USCCB Migration and Refugee Services and I interviewed almost half of them.  Some had recently fled from Afghanistan to escape continuing threat by the Taliban. Others had fled to Greece after unsuccessfully trying to find refuge in Iran or in Turkey.  Despite their grim surroundings and the traumas many of them had already suffered in their countries or during their travels through foreign lands, they were clinging to wide-eyed plans to find their way to Sweden or England or the United States, even though almost none of them had connections of any kind in any of those places. All that they knew was that they could not stay where they were, and they had heard that those places were better.

Most had taken recent harrowing journeys at the mercy of human smugglers and traffickers, travelling across the Aegean Sea from the west coast of Turkey. They had been rescued from the sea near one of twenty or so Greek Islands—only to be transferred to this detention center in Athens. They were often the oldest boy in their respective families.  For one 14-year-old youth, his parents had both died and his efforts and dreams were fueled by the desire to send money back to his four younger brothers and sisters.

These Afghan youth and other unaccompanied refugee children are often remarkable, resilient kids, who are largely out of sight and out of mind in the shadow of the Syrian refugee crisis and other large refugee crises. They do not deserve detention and harsh enforcement. They deserve our advocacy and our help.

One viable option for some of the children is resettlement to a third country, such as the United States, which has a strong program for such youth. For World Refugee Day celebrated June 20, in solidarity with refugees around the world, urge your Senators and Representative to be champions for unaccompanied refugee children like those described above by increasing the funding for the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program of the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services to $137 million. Urge Congress to build up U.S. capacity to help unaccompanied refugee children and also share U.S. expertise and resources for resettlement to other countries around the world.

Matthew Wilch is a Refugee Policy Advisor for the USCCB Office of Migration and Refugee Srevices. See Refuge and Hope in the Time of ISIS for further findings and recommendations concerning unaccompanied children impacted by the Syrian refugee crisis.  See also The United States Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program: Guiding Principles and Promising Practices.

Combating the Culture of Enslavement 

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

June 12th is the World Day against Child Labor. The most recent global estimates suggest some 120 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are involved in child labor, with boys and girls in this age group almost equally affected.  The issue of child labor is not just an overseas problem, but exists in our own backyard. Children, particularly immigrant children, are vulnerable to forced labor here in North America, whether in domestic servitude, in farming and agricultural operations, or in forced begging or door to door sales schemes. For example, in Mexico, migrant children frequently work to harvest agricultural crops destined for the U.S. with their parents, despite obvious dangers to their physical health and development.

Pope Francis has spoken extensively about the harm that child labor causes. During last year’s World Day against Child Labor, he stated that the persistence of child labor is rooted in several factors including poverty and lack of decent work for adults, lack of social protection. The Holy Father has urged us to “renew our commitment, especially families, to ensure the tutelage of every boy’s and girl’s dignity and the chance to grow up healthy.”

Continuing his call to address root causes related to child and forced labor, human trafficking, and modern slavery, Pope Francis entitled his annual message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, on January 1, 2015, “No Longer Slaves, But Brothers and Sisters.” In that message, Holy Father extorted organizations in civil society to awaken consciences and promote whatever steps are necessary for combating and uprooting the culture of enslavement.  He also called upon businesses to ensure dignified working conditions and to be vigilant to ensure that forms of subjugation or human trafficking do not find their way into companies’ distribution chains. Lastly, he called upon every person to be aware that purchasing is always a moral—and not simply an economic—act.

When examining the root causes of child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking, it is hard to see where we as individuals can begin to understand and combat the problem. Yet, Pope Francis highlights an important part of combatting child and forced labor—looking at global supply chains and encouraging businesses to remove human trafficking and forced and child labor from their distribution chains and allowing consumers to consume more mindfully and ethically. Governments are taking note of this movement and doing their part as well. Soon a bill will be introduced that aims to help make businesses more aware of their use of child and forced labor, human trafficking and modern slavery.  Supply chain legislation would require certain companies to report to the U.S. government about efforts to address human trafficking, forced and child labor, and the commercial sexual exploitation of children within their business operations and list that information on their websites. These disclosures would allow consumers to make informed decisions about what products they buy and which socially responsible companies to invest in.

Supply chain legislation represents an important step in answering Pope Francis’s call to combat and uproot the culture of enslavement.  An important action that we as individual Catholics can take is to be ethical consumers. We must make every effort to purchase goods not connected to child labor, worker abuses, or human trafficking.” In this way, we can heed Holy Father’s words and erase this “scourge of humanity” from the world in our lifetime.

Ashley Feasley is a policy advisor for Migration and Refugee Services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.