ROME— This weekend one hundred judges, prosecutors and magistrates from around the world will be in Rome to participate in a Vatican-sponsored summit to join Pope Francis in his fight against human trafficking and modern-day slavery.
Francis is expected to address the group on Friday afternoon, the first day of the two-day session.
There are currently 46 million people around the world who are being bought, sold and treated as slaves. Recent statistics show that the number is not decreasing, but sky-rocketing: in 2015, there were an estimated 38.8 million people exploited for domestic, sexual or child labor.
In the United States alone, there are thought to be 57,700 people living and working in slave-like conditions.
In addition, observers believe that the 60 million displaced persons and 130 million refugees created as a consequence of war, terrorism and climate change are a breeding ground for traffickers. In a March survey, the International Organization for Migration found that 7.2 percent of migrants traveling along the eastern Mediterranean route reported experiences with human trafficking.
Conscious of the rising tide of modern-day slavery, from the beginning of his pontificate Francis has become arguably the strongest voice against any form of human exploitation, a role he had at a more local level when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Trying to counteract this growth, the Argentine pontiff, with the help of one of his co-nationals, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, has been reaching out to all sectors of society to form networks against modern-day slavery.
In 2014 he summoned religious leaders to the Vatican, where they signed a joint declaration that aimed to eradicate it by 2020. A year later, he invited mayors from around the world, from cities such as New York, Boston, Paris, and Stockholm to agree to the same objective.
When President Barack Obama visited the Vatican in March 2014, the fight against modern slavery was one of the issues the two spoke about.
Sánchez Sorondo also organized several workshops for youth, both in Rome and in other cities, as part of a wider effort.
The June 3-4 gathering is being put together by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and will take place within Vatican grounds, at a building called Casina Pio IV.
Among the long list of judges, prosecutors and magistrates, there’s a delegation from the United States, led by Susan Coppedge, the Ambassador responsible for the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
The event will focus not only on human trafficking, considered the third illegal industry after drug and arms dealing, but also on organized crime, the main force behind modern day slavery.
“The global society needs a new beginning rooted in justice,” Sánchez Sorondo said. “No instance of justice can tolerate the violence of slavery or of organized crime, and no power must be allowed to corrupt justice.”
“Judges are called to be fully aware of this challenge, share their experiences and work together to open up new paths of justice and promote human dignity, freedom, responsibility, happiness and peace,” he said.
In a document introducing the summit, Sánchez Sorondo also said that during their regular meetings, the members of PAS failed to answer the following question: “How many human traffickers, pimps, and drug traffickers are caught and how many ill-gotten gains have been confiscated and directed towards former victims and society?”
The event will be broadcast live.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio sponsored an NGO called “La Alameda” which fed him information about slave labor in Argentina’s clandestine sewing shops and also human trafficking for prostitution.
The future pope would find work and asylum for survivors. The founder of this group, Congressman Gustavo Vera, will attend this week’s summit.
During a mass held in a Buenos Aires train station in 2012, Bergoglio compared the city to a “butcher shop” that takes away the human dignity of people trapped by these networks. He also denounced the local police department and the legal system for accepting bribes from traffickers, saying that “without them, these mafias wouldn’t exist.”
Addressing a Vatican-organized youth symposium against prostitution and human trafficking in November, Francis appealed for a committed fight against modern slavery, saying that simply supporting the cause “is not enough for a Christian.”
More recently, in 2015, during a summit organized by the PAS, he described modern-day slavery as “a crime against humanity,” and a “plague,” saying that society needs to be aware of “this new evil that, in a global world, is hidden because it’s scandalous and ‘politically incorrect.’”
This February, at a meeting with trade unions, workers’ organizations, Chambers of Commerce and business associations during the last day of his trip to Mexico, Francis said that “God will hold the slave-drivers of our days accountable, and we must do everything to make sure that these situations do not happen again.”
This weekend’s meeting proves that despite his mounting focus on migration, he has no intention of slowing down in the fight against slavery, and, in effect, 1 out of every 150 people in the world are counting on his efforts to be successful.