ROME – Representatives from both the United States and the United Kingdom have praised the work of religious sisters to assist trafficking victims during COVID-19, arguing that their work is crucial as the world prepares for the pandemic aftermath.

Speaking during an online Oct. 14 symposium on trafficking, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich called human trafficking “a stain on all humanity” which has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“Men, women, and children are increasingly likely to become victims of forced labor and slavery,” she said, insisting on the need to protect victims, prosecute traffickers and raise awareness so as to end trafficking in persons.

Similarly, John Cotton Richmond, U.S. ambassador at large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, argued that trafficking is an issue “that requires clarity,” especially during the pandemic.

“Traffickers do not struggle to define success or achieve it,” he said, insisting that in the response of the international community, “we have to be equally clear…on how we’re going to stop them.”

He stressed the importance of having a “victim-centered” approach, and praised the work of faith-based organizations such as Talitha Kum and the Saint Martha Group, among others, insisting that “they have an important role to play.

What makes trafficking wrong is not the fact that the law says so or that popular opinion is against it, Richmond says, noting that in the past the slave trade was protected by law and defended in the public sphere.

It’s wrong,” he said, “because people matter, individuals matter and they do not matter more because they have special status,” the right immigration documents or “political power.”

“We all have inalienable rights,” he said, and adding that those who work with faith-based groups to support trafficking survivors in shelters or through healing and integration programs “honor these rights and the dignity of the person.”

“You show every life has value, every life matters … and you do not condition your services on their ability to produce,” he said.

Kevin Hyland, former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and senior advisor of the Saint Martha Group anti-trafficking organization, said that throughout his many years working in the field, the work of religious sisters has been “crucial.”

“We were able to help people that we would never have seen,” and prosecute larger trafficking rings than before the sisters’ involvement, he said, insisting that the work of women religious has been fundamental to offering victim support and data protection.

“We need to look out for the vulnerable as our world emerges from COVID-19,” he said, adding, “as bad as our predicament may be, it has provided an opportunity to reflect” and emerge as leaders with a clear moral compass in “repairing a model that is broken.”

Wednesday’s symposium, titled, “Combatting Trafficking in Persons: Action in a Time of Crisis,” was organized jointly by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and the International Union of Superiors General (UISG).

In addition to Gingrich, Richmond and Hyland, other participants included Cardinal Michael Czerny, undersecretary for the migrants and refugees section of the Vatican department for Integral Human Development; Sister Patricia Murray, executive secretary of the UISG; Sister Gabriella Bottani, international coordinator of the Talitha Kum Network; and Princess Okokon, a trafficking survivor and cultural mediator with Piam ONLUS Asti – an anti-trafficking organization she and her husband founded together.

In her remarks, Bottani noted that in 2019 alone, her organization consisted of 56 active groups with 2,600 sisters and collaborators who provided assistance to some 24,700 trafficking survivors.

These numbers have gone down in 2020 due to the pandemic, she said, but insisted that this does not mean the problem is any less serious.

COVID-19, Bottani said, “has worked like a lens that illuminated and magnified the injustices and vulnerabilities of millions of people around the world. It has highlighted poorly functioning structural and political processes and triggered a deeply destructive effect.”

Not only has the number of unemployed skyrocketed, leaving many people “with little or no means to survive,” but preventative measures such as social distancing are “reserved for the privileged,” who have enough space to spread out at home and who have access to the internet.

Inequalities in healthcare, job security and financial stability have all been thrust into the spotlight, she said, noting that this is especially true of women, who have “overwhelmingly been disproportionately impacted” by the coronavirus, as women are the predominant workforce on the streets and in manufacturing and textile factories.

“The feminization of poverty is increasing in a time of crisis,” she said. “The poor get poorer and the rich get richer.”

All of these fallouts from COVID-19 have increased the number of people in demographics likely to be trafficked, Bottani said, noting that at the top of the list are women, children, ethnic minorities, foreign citizens, and stateless migrants.

Risk of exploitation has also increased along with the inaccessibility of essential goods and services, including online sexual exploitation and domestic violence, Bottani said, noting that it has also become more difficult to report problems to the police.

She noted that migrant workers have also felt the brunt of global lockdowns, as many were “abandoned after losing their jobs, or abandoned in a context without receiving support.” Border closures have exacerbated the issue, she said, noting that the number of internal migrants has also increased.

Work in shelters for trafficking survivors has also been impacted by social distancing requirements, as volunteers are no longer able to go, Bottani said, noting that the expenses for anti-trafficking organizations will also likely increase along with the need.

In her remarks, Okokon said many trafficking survivors are “stuck at home with no food or money” as a result of coronavirus lockdowns. She highlighted the work her organization has done, including food deliveries and a street unit set up to provide assistance to victims left with nothing.

Czerny offered closing remarks for the event, saying that in his view, one of the biggest problems with human trafficking is a lack of awareness.

“The blindness of our societies, institutions and governments and the invisibility of this reality is the single biggest problem,” he said, and, quoting Pope Francis’s new encyclical on human fraternity Fratelli Tutti, said the fact that basic human necessities remain unmet for large portions of society “should be a source of shame for humanity.”

“We allow our brothers and sisters to die in hunger and thirst without access to healthcare,” he said, stressing that everyone holds responsibility for those who are vulnerable.

Human trafficking itself should also be a source of shame for the world, he said, insisting that international politics “must be move beyond planned speeches and good intentions, move beyond semantic or ideological disputes.”

As far as promises go, “we know them, recognize them, hope they turn to action, but we’re all getting old enough to become a bit skeptical,” Czerny said, adding “There are many issues on which the world is wasted arguing.”

He highlighted Pope Francis’s frequent call to dialogue, saying this approach, while difficult, is “much more strategic than we realize.”

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