ROME — Every day around the world people are being bought, sold, and smuggled. They’re often beaten, starved, and forced to work as prostitutes or to take jobs as domestic, restaurant, or factory workers with little or no pay.

At the express request of Pope Francis, for the last three years the Vatican has become one of the leading voices in the fight against this illegal industry which today affects over 45 million people, more than the total number of people trafficked during the African slave trade.

The Holy See has organized workshops for political and religious leaders, given its blessing to agreements forged by some of the world’s top supermarket companies to slave-proof their supply chains, and Francis prominently spoke about trafficking when he addressed the United Nations last September during his trip to the United States.

Caritas Internationalis, the global papal charity, is also a part of the crusade, and from Sept. 5-7 they held a conference in Abuja, Nigeria, with 140 leading experts on the fight against slavery, coming from 47 countries. Co-organizing was the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, which has now been absorbed into a new super-department on human development.

“Slavery starts when people do not respect their own humanity, their bodies and their spiritual potential,” said Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, of the Philippines. “They see themselves, and consequently other persons, as mere instruments or objects to attain some goal, especially money, profit, influence or power.”

Tagle, president of Caritas, addressed the conference on Tuesday, provocatively asking: “Do the traffickers see human beings in those they are exploiting?”

The scope of the conference was to connect various stakeholders and strengthen cooperation between countries of origin, transit and destination, in order to explore collaborative strategies that can be used to prevent human trafficking within and from Africa.

Victims of human trafficking, defined by Francis as a “crime against humanity,” are hiding in plain sight: women and children tricked into prostitution by pimps who withhold their papers, fishermen kept in cages at sea, families who peel shrimp for 16 hours a day which are then sold in supermarkets across the U.S.

Father Bruno Ciceri, from the Vatican’s Apostleship of the Sea, spoke about how the fishing industry enslaves mostly men, who are forced to spend months, and sometimes years at sea, with barely any food, in inhumane situations, and completely isolated from the world.

“You can buy tins of tuna which says it was caught without hurting dolphins or turtles – but what about the fishermen?” he asked.

Called “One human family, one voice, no human trafficking,” the conference aimed to address all the edges of the problem which is the reason why not all the participants were Catholic officials.

For instance, Philip Jusu, the Migration Officer for the African Union, spoke about the challenges authorities face, and the need for an international commitment to fight human trafficking or “transnational organized crime.”

“Human trafficking is a ruthless and murderous trade. Therefore, traffickers must be pursued with vigor, frustrated and dismantled with the full force of the law and international resolve,” Jusu said.

He also spoke about the implementation of the Ouagadougou Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings, which aims to prevent trafficking of human beings between Africa and the European Union.

Jusu spoke of the “4Ps”:

  • Prevention of the crime.
  • Prosecution of criminals.
  • Protection of victims.
  • Partnership between international agencies, highlighting the empowerment of women and young girls as an important aspect for eradicating this evil.

The African leader shared a roundtable on the challenges in combating human trafficking and exploitation from the perspective of international law and human rights with Kevin Hyland, the United Kingdom Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

“One victim is one victim too many,” Hayland said, before detailing the areas that are being addressed in his country’s fight against trafficking. Among the issues he described are victim identification and care, private sector involvement, and international cooperation.

The U.K., as most of western Europe and the United States, is largely perceived as a “destination” country, meaning where slaves are taken, while most of this illegal human trade originates in Asia and Africa.

The world’s estimated 60 million refugees and forcefully displaced persons who are driven by a desperate need to survive and desire to build a better life, are particularly vulnerable to both sexual and labor exploitation.

One of the many unspoken truths about modern-day slavery is that even when the statistics in some countries might seem “low,” with 11,700 estimated enslaved people in the U.K. against the 18 million in India, those who work in slave-like conditions do so to supply products sold globally.

Nigeria, on the other hand, is a country of “origin” for many reasons, such as forced migration due to poverty, chronic corruption and the violence of Boko Haram. Cardinal John Onaiyekan, of Abuja, hence one of the hosts of the meeting, warned that the number of victims who fall pray of the trafficking networks could increase because of “the number of frustrated people who can’t make ends meet.”

Onaiyekan also warned against the dangers of migration, saying that “immigration to an unknown destination is not the real answer. People say that it can always be better up there. It’s not true. It can be worse over there than what you’re facing here. At least here you have no winter, you can sleep under the bridge. You can’t sleep under the bridge there. You’ll die of cold.”

Among the participants from the Vatican was Argentine Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, who’s become Francis’ point man on the Church’s involvement in the fight against trafficking.

Sanchez Sorondo introduced a working plan in 20 statements, which among other things celebrated the synergy between the United Nations and other international organizations, as well as among various religions.

“Although religions cannot pray at the same altar, religions can and should act together to promote human dignity and defend the freedom of each person, and promote good relations with the Earth,” he said.

Human trafficking, Tagle said, is a symptom of “distorted and disrupted relationships with our selves, with the created world and with society,” describing it as an expression of a culture of pride, greed and throwing away the outcasts.

“Where little effort is being done to combat human trafficking, let us take the lead and encourage governments to adopt anti-trafficking legislation and structures,” Tagle said. “Let us act as ‘one human family with one voice’ and let’s say no to human trafficking.”