The global crisis of human trafficking demands a global response. In the first Religion and Global Society article, Cardinal Vincent Nichols introduces the work of the Santa Marta Group. A collaboration between the Catholic Church and law enforcement agencies, this faith-inspired initiative’s pragmatic approach seeks to save innocent lives and bring perpetrators to justice.
Claudia was trafficked from Chile and forced to work in the sex trade in various British towns and cities. The traffickers threatened violence on her family in Chile if she tried to escape. It took two years before she went to the police in the UK and was rescued.
Al Bangura grew up in Sierra Leone dreaming of becoming a professional footballer. He was brought to the UK as a vulnerable 14 year old by a man who promised to put him on the path to the Premier League. Instead he was abandoned in a Kings Cross hotel, where three men tried to force him into having sex with them.
Sophie was trafficked from the UK to Italy, her passport taken, and she was forced to work in the sex trade. Frightened and ashamed to ask her family for help, it took almost two years to finally escape.
These are just some of the stories we have heard over the past four years since setting up the Santa Marta Group. Eventually freed from their traffickers, they are the lucky ones out of the estimated 40 million modern day slaves across the world. Human trafficking is the second most lucrative crime in the world; the International Labour Organisation estimates that profits from modern slavery are over $150bn a year.
This huge profit and the millions of slaves can blind us all to the tragedy suffered by individuals and their families. Claudia, Al, Sophie and each trafficked person has their own story, a human face that must always be at the forefront of our minds in combatting this evil crime. And this human face is not far away, it is all around us here in the UK and in every country across the world.
As Pope Francis said at the launch of the Santa Marta Group in 2014: ‘Human trafficking is an open wound on the body of contemporary society; a scourge on the body of Christ’. He said that humanity had to learn to weep again at the suffering of our brothers and sisters and then we would know what to do.
Sensitising ourselves to human suffering has been a consistent theme of Pope Francis’s papacy and it is this focus on the human, on the victim of human trafficking, that informed the setting up of the Santa Marta Group.
The setting up of this initiative came as I began to witness a remarkable partnership being built in London between religious women and the Metropolitan Police. The anti-trafficking unit was led by Kevin Hyland, now the independent anti-trafficking commissioner. He was keen to further this partnership and it has helped to transform the effectiveness of operations to rescue victims, care for them and pursue to prosecution the perpetrators of this horrendous crime.
I realised then the effectiveness of such partnerships, especially between unlikely partners. Religious women, offering help and support to victims, did not instinctively trust the law enforcement agencies who they understood, with good reason, were in all likelihood going to prosecute the very women the Sisters were trying to protect. Yet over time the partnership was established; the fruit of the hard work of building trust, requiring change in mindsets and procedures.
The core of this vision and work is to foster a symbiotic relationship between law enforcement and the international network and resources of the Catholic Church in this fight. Four years after launch, police chiefs from over 35 countries are now involved. Results are emerging, with a growing number of countries putting together effective partnerships between Church and the police in this work. In Nigeria, a detailed programme of education and job creation has been put into effect. Training programmes for those who work in the maritime industry have been put together to recognise and tackle modern slavery. Other initiatives involving the Catholic community have emerged in Argentina and Lithuania.
It is worth emphasising the foundations from which we in the Church act: a radical commitment to the dignity of every human person, a dignity which has to be protected and promoted in every circumstance and time; a dignity which does not depend on the abilities or status of a person but which is rooted entirely in the inner depth of the person’s existence, in the gift of human life which always comes from God.
That there are more than 40 million people callously held in slavery in the world today is a mark of shame for us all. It demands our response. The challenge for all of us is to rescue, protect, assist and serve all of those held in slavery. The United Nations has committed to eradicating forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking by 2025 as one of its Sustainable Development Goals.
However, today, organised crime is winning. There are more slaves today than at the height of the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century. And the number is growing as international criminal gangs increase their influence and reach. Remarkable work is being done: as outlined above in the work of the Santa Marta Group; by religious sisters and other groups caring for survivors of trafficking; by businesses who offer a pathway to work and reintegration for these survivors; by financial institutions tracking ill-gotten profits. However, today we are losing the fight against trafficking as our collective response is uncoordinated and fragmented.
Businesses must recognise the problem and clean up their supply chains, for no businesses are immune from slavery. Banks and the City must recognise the problem of money laundering and ensure organised crime is traced and halted. Local government must identify and crack down on those local businesses, such as nail bars and car washes, which are often places of modern slavery.
As citizens, we must hold our elected officials and law enforcement agencies to account. We must use our consumer choices to reward businesses which offer goods and services free from the abuse of slavery and refuse those who do not. Businesses which put profit above human dignity should be punished, both by law enforcement and by consumer pressure.
Santa Marta Group, with its remarkable partnership between religious women and police always putting the victim first, is part of the solution. But it is not for one group to act alone; it is not for somebody else to resolve. It is in our power individually and collectively to inform ourselves of the problem and then to combat human trafficking and rid the world of slavery. We have the ability to do so, but do we have the will?
About the author
Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Santa Marta Group. For more information, go to http://santamartagroup.com/
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.