LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Consumers of cheap goods and services are part of the supply chain of modern slavery, according to English Cardinal Vincent Nichols.
Nichols spent the weekend in Argentina attending a regional conference of the Santa Marta Group – a global alliance of bishops, senior law enforcement figures, religious communities and NGOs working in partnership to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking.
“Their fate is not distant from us. We have to recognize how we too are part of the dynamics of life which lead to their captivity,” the cardinal said during his Feb. 8 homily at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires.
“In one way or another we are part of the chain of supply and demand that results in their enslavement. We want cheaper goods, illegal or immoral pleasure, cheap services for our bodies or for our cars. We are part of the demand met by modern day slaves, part of the processes by which this slavery is one of the most profitable criminal activities in the world,” he continued.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio helped with the fight against human trafficking when he led the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires and made it a priority of the global Catholic Church after his election as Pope Francis in 2013.
In 2014, the pontiff backed Nichols in the creation of the Santa Marta Group, which the cardinal has led ever since.
“Pope Francis uses two phrases to describe it. He says: ‘It is a wound in the flesh of humanity.’ But then he adds, ‘It is a great wound in the body of Christ.’ In this way we too see human trafficking not only as a disgrace to our humanity but also as a disfiguring of Christ himself,” Nichols said during the Mass opening the Buenos Aires conference.
The conference in the pope’s home archdiocese began on Feb. 8, the feast day of St Josephine Bakhita, the Sudanese former slave who became a religious sister.
During his keynote address on Feb. 9, Nichols said the commitment to the struggle against human trafficking lies in our commitment to those who need protection from becoming a victim.
“We have to maintain at the center of our motivation the person, the vulnerable person who is the target of the exploiter. The focus must be on the human lives and how we put an end to the suffering and marginalization endured by 40 million people across our world,” the cardinal continued.
The International Labor Organization estimates around 9 percent of all trafficked people originate from Latin America, often serving as domestic servants, sex laborers, farm hands, and factory workers.
According to Polaris, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, nearly a third of human trafficking victims in the United Sates are from the region.
“Every day we come face to face with what is simply known as the mysterium iniquitatis, the presence of evil, which we struggle to understand and even to counter,” he said. “If our words and our work are to find credibility, then we have to have the courage to look this evil in the face and not hide or deny its features and the ways in which it touches us. This is true of human trafficking.”
The Santa Marta group aims to build trust between victims, law enforcement, governments, and the Church. Often, victims of human traffickers fear law enforcement, because of their immigration status or involvement in illegal activities such as prostitution.
“The person always remains at the center of our action and awareness,” Nichols said.
From this, the cardinal said the other steps follow: Prevention and the pursuit of perpetrators, rescue and rehabilitation of victims, educating communities to open their eyes to the invisible reality of human trafficking and modern slavery in their midst, and to work together to find resources needed to tackle the problem.
At the conclusion of the three-day event, Nichols said the Santa Marta Group is working with the Argentinian Federal Police, seeking to “build an effective partnership between those forces and the resources of the Church.”
San Juan Archbishop Jorge Eduardo Lozano, who served as auxiliary of Buenos Aires for over a decade under Pope Francis, wrote of the “heartrending” testimonies he heard from trafficking victims in his weekend column.
He detailed the crimes: The kidnapping and torture; the abhorrent methods of submission to break the will; the repeated rape, the forced addictions; the beatings; the photos of the family members and the threats to kill them if they escaped.
He also warned that “children, adolescents and young people are captured to be offered as sexual merchandise in different countries of the world,” adding that Argentina is no exception.
“Much needs to be done to eradicate this social cancer,” the archbishop wrote.
“How far can human evil go? Why so much investment of creativity and intelligence to organize evil, harm, contempt for life?” Lozano added. “Why so much fragility and indifference in society to neglect their most defenseless children? Why is it that the arrogance and greed of a few are outside or above the law?”
On Monday, several proposals from the conference were released, including the dedication of more resources and a dedicated budget to fighting human trafficking, as well as the promotion of legislation to tackle the use of the internet and social media for victim recruitment.