Pope condemns human trafficking at conference involving Church leaders, police

ROME – Human trafficking and modern-day slavery have long been at the top of Pope Francis’s agenda, as shown at a meeting on Thursday with the Santa Marta Group, a coalition of police forces and the Catholic Church created to fight the problem.

Thanking the group for their work, the pope said that the commercialization of human beings is a “criminal activity that violates the dignity and rights of men, women and children,” leaving long-lasting effects upon the victims and society.

As Francis noted, in the years since its establishment, the Santa Marta Group has devoted itself to fostering an ever greater understanding of the scope and nature of human trafficking and to strengthening cooperation on the international, national, and local levels to put an end to this illegal industry.

The pontiff condemned the fact that modern forms of slavery continue to spread, “even within the most developed areas of our world,” and called on the international community to increase its fight against human trafficking, taking into consideration “a number of broader realities,” including the use of technology and social media, “as well as the need for a renewed ethical vision of our political, economic and social life, one centered not on profit but on persons.”

The Santa Marta Group is an international alliance of police chiefs and prelates which takes its name from the hotel within the Vatican grounds where the Argentine pontiff has lived since his election in 2013. The coalition was born in 2014, at the initiative of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. It first met in Rome, signing a declaration committing to work together to end this illegal industry.

The May 17-19 summit at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences was the first time in three years the alliance has been able to meet in person since the beginning of the pandemic.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and president of the Santa Marta Group, was among those who spoke to journalists in Rome following the conference. 

“We set as a priority efforts to break the financial model of this monstrous trade,” he said. “We are resolved to cooperate in bringing about the confiscation of the profits made, the ‘blood money’ that enriches the criminal. We will work to effect the seizure of their assets, which the seizing of Russian assets prove is possible.”

Nichols was referring to the confiscation of the funds of many Russian oligarchs in an attempt to stop the flow of money that finances Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. He said that the group also pledged to work towards slavery-free supply chains, pointing out as an example the work the church in Australia has done on this issue.

Kevin Hyland, who served as the United Kingdom’s first independent anti-slavery commissioner, said that the group discussed how to work collectively and focus on the victims of these crimes, “to overcome the globalization of indifference.”

“This industry generates $150 billion in revenue, and this is being conservative,” he said. “And not even one percent of that is being invested to combat this industry. We need to work on the notion of tainted money: If a person earned money out of slavery, that profit needs to be taken and be used to compensate victims.”

Kenyan Judge Roselyn Nambuye said that sometimes survivors often feel ashamed to speak up, which is the reason why in her country the police has a special department for trafficking crimes that involve mostly women. She added there is a need to change the police force to inspire “friendliness and trust” so victims can come forward. 

“The key thing is networking and interlinking; what we have learned in this conference should not be left on a paper: We need to get home, begin working on this, and then reach out to those who are working on this issue,” she said. “This is a crime we must fight.”

“We need the support of survivors, we need for them to tell the stories, so that the young men and women from Africa who want to leave, understand what awaits them if they, too, flee their homes, trusting that ‘things will sort themselves out’,” she said.

Steve Francis is the acting executive associate director for Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

It is estimated that 40 million people around the world are victims of human trafficking. Francis said it is a global problem that requires a local solution. 

“This international forum will allow us to be more strategic around the world,” he said. “Law enforcement is not the solution alone: We cannot arrest our way out of these crimes. We need to focus on victims first and foremost.”

Juan Carlos Hernandez, head of Argentina’s Federal Police, said that when it comes to the crimes that exploit people, there are “no borders,” which is the reason why working in a coalition is key.

He also said that, even though there is a need to put survivors first, “we are going to follow the money; we are going after the benefits that these miserable [criminals] make. This is the iceberg effect: We cannot be satisfied with what we see, helping survivors and imprisoning the criminals. Many more ‘benefit’ from this crime.”

At present time, there are an estimated 40 million people who are direct victims of human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

Migrants are often the targets of human traffickers. 

Hyland argued that migrant workers are needed all over the world, which is why safe migration routes are needed.

“If when people arrive they are integrated, given legitimate job opportunities and a bank account, they will add much to the community,” he said. “But if governments stay away from legitimizing proper, safe migration routes, the danger grows … as do the opportunities for criminals who take them.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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