Parish Resource - Chester

catechetical-sunday-2015-poster-english-spanish-animatedHuman Trafficking

by Hilary Chester, Ph.D.
Associate Director, Anti-Trafficking Program
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Slavery and similar forms of exploitation are mentioned throughout the Old and New Testaments. In one instance, Jesus, through his ultimate self-sacrifice, delivers the faithful from figurative slavery and bondage. In the present day, slavery is not simply a metaphor. The enslavement and exploitation of men, women, and children is very real. The United Nations (UN) defines the crime in the Palermo Protocol, and most countries have adopted national laws that align with this definition.

Here in the United States, the federal law is called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which was first passed in 2000. This law both defines the crime and outlines services and resources available to victims. The TVPA identifies three key elements that must be present in the crime: the act of gaining control over a person ("the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons"); the means of maintaining that control ("threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power, or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation"); and the purpose of financial gain ("sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs").

Estimates by the UN and other law enforcement and government entities rank human trafficking among the top three most profitable criminal enterprises, along with drugs and weapons dealing. The number of individuals enslaved around the world is estimated to be in the millions.

The Catholic Church was an early proponent of crafting laws against human trafficking, both in the United States and globally. Women religious, Catholic charitable institutions, and social service providers were among some of the first to recognize victims of human trafficking among their clients and to realize that they were victims of a "new" and distinct crime. It became clear that there was a distinct form of abuse and exploitation prevalent among migrants, in the United States and abroad, that was different than smuggling, different than typical forms of labor exploitation. The organized and deliberate recruitment and control of individuals for their labor in the commercial sex industry and in many other industries was coming to light as migrants and other vulnerable individuals sought assistance from the Church.

Catholic entities have been on the front lines around the world in identifying and serving victims, restoring survivors, educating those at risk and those who respond to cases, raising awareness among the general public, and advocating for better protections and resources for victims and survivors.

The Catholic Church's strong opposition to human trafficking is rooted in principles of Catholic social teaching—the sacredness and dignity of human life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church "forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason . . . lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity" (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2000], no. 2414).

As far back as 2002, in a letter entitled "Twenty-First Century Slavery: The Human Rights Dimension to Trafficking in Human Beings," our Holy Father Pope John Paul II stated that "the trade in human persons constitutes a shocking offense against human dignity and a grave violation of fundamental human rights. . . . Such situations are an affront to fundamental values which are shared by all cultures and peoples, values rooted in the very nature of the human person" (Pope John Paul II, May 15, 2002,

For many years, I have worked for Catholic organizations both directly with and on behalf of victims and survivors of human trafficking. What we have all learned is that human trafficking succeeds—it thrives—because the perpetrators systematically break down their victims. The traffickers maintained control of their victims through powerful psychological, coercive tactics.

Survivors and their families are threatened, physically assaulted, and fear for their lives. I remember a survivor telling me that she was told by her trafficker/pimp that she could leave if she wanted—he would simply replace her with her younger sister. And so she remained.

Foreign national victims often feel legally trapped. They are often keenly aware that they are breaking laws if they are prostituted, working without legal authorization, or present in the country without immigration status. Traffickers simply threaten to call the police or immigration authorities to have the victims arrested, jailed, and or deported—returning to their families with nothing. And so they remain.

Shame also paralyzes many victims. After months, even years, of enslavement, some survivors believe that they are not worth being rescued, or that they cannot return to their families or communities because they are "ruined." It is easy for most of us to imagine the shame a person feels if they are exploited in the commercial sex trade (e.g., being prostituted or compelled to engage in stripping or pornography). Women or girls often report feeling that they have dishonored their families, that they can never marry or have a family of their own. Traffickers repeat these mantras to their victims: Where will you go? Who will want you? And so they remain.

People exploited in labor trafficking schemes also experience profound shame. They feel foolish for falling for a scheme or false promise. Their families may have made great sacrifices to pay employer recruitment fees and the costs of travel, only to learn that the jobs were nothing like they were promised and sometimes that even travel documents were fake. As a result, the family is in debt, and the victims feel they cannot "go home" until they make it right. This can break families apart, especially in the cases of men who cannot provide for their families and women who leave their children behind. And so they remain.

So what can be done?

First, we must form protective communities. Human trafficking occurs everywhere, and victims come from diverse backgrounds. However, there are distinct vulnerabilities that can increase risk: (1) poverty and limited socioeconomic opportunities; (2) lack of immigration status and the inability to participate in regulated work; and (3) prior abuse and family dysfunction or disintegration. We must educate ourselves so that we know who is at risk, where victims can be encountered, how to respond, and how to support the full restoration of survivors.

Industries that rely on temporary and seasonal workers, especially migrant laborers, have higher incidences of exploitation and trafficking. The same is true for unregulated and poorly regulated industries, such as agriculture and agricultural processing; personal care and domestic work; light manufacturing; hospitality and service, such as restaurants and hotels; adult entertainment such, as strip clubs and pornography; and the illicit sex trade. It is important to stay vigilant and report suspicions—either to a local anti-trafficking task force or coalition, or to the national hotline (1-888-373-7888).

We must also recognize how our own choices and actions may be contributing to the exploitation of others. Pope Francis wrote clearly in his Apostolic Exhortation 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?' (Gn 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? 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"(Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [Washington, DC: LEV–USCCB, 2013], no. 211).

There are direct actions—such as exploiting employees or patronizing businesses of those who do, or being a consumer of services of those exploited in the sex trade—that simply must stop. Proactively, we must be ethical consumers and employers. We can join advocacy and consumer-driven campaigns to fight against institutional and systemic faults in the United States and abroad that have normalized the exploitation of undocumented migrants; neglect of children and youth in the welfare and juvenile justice systems; and the marginalization of women, the poor, or ethnic and religious minorities. Finally, we can look out for our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, as Pope Francis instructs us.

We believe that, in order to uphold the dignity of the human person, it is essential that communities most at risk of exploitation are aware of the risks and are educated about their rights. An educated and empowered community is better prepared to protect its most vulnerable members from exploitation, as well as to identify, serve, and pursue justice for members who may have fallen prey to traffickers. The principle of subsidiarity and "accompaniment," which draws on a community's own human resources, is a practical approach to grassroots education and outreach in at-risk communities.

There is so much capacity for us to be in solidarity with those affected by human trafficking and to bring the light of the Gospel into the darkness.

Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.

Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Excerpt from Pope John Paul II, "Twenty-First Century Slavery: The Human Rights Dimension to Trafficking in Human Beings," May 15, 2002,copyright © 2002, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, copyright © 2013, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.