By Tamara Laine
Around the world, human trafficking has reached horrific new heights, fueled by violence, poverty, and the effects of climate change. Now, traffickers are finding new opportunities to prey on those who are searching for safety.
“It seems trafficking is increasing instead of diminishing,” explained Sister Gabriella Bottani, the international coordinator for Talitha Kum, an anti-trafficking network of Catholic religious orders.
Their influence is so important that Pope Francis recently acknowledged the impact of their work at an exhibit at the Vatican.
“His words were able to mobilize many people inside of the Church, giving us, as religious sisters, wider support,” she said.
Sister Bottani met with Currents News recently at the Church of the Holy Family, near the United Nations, to talk about how she has seen abuse around the world proliferate.
“One of the things that I struggle with a lot is the normalization of exploitation,” she said. “It becomes so normal that we think, ‘Why should we get involved with that? Or, ‘Why do I have to recognize myself as a victim?’ The exploitation for many poor people became a normal thing.”
Photographs by human rights photographer Lisa Kristine show the scope of human suffering but of triumph too – of men, women, and children touched by the tireless efforts of women of faith.
But the work is only getting more dire. As the flow of global refugees increases to historic levels, human trafficking reports have simultaneously hit record highs “in Africa and the Middle East,” Sr. Bottani said, “and Southeast Asia is quite strong.”
For asylum seekers fleeing violence or desperate for financial security, embarking on a perilous journey to escape intolerable conditions in their home countries, they now risk becoming victims of forced labor, sexual exploitation, blood or organ trafficking.
Shocking revelations from the International Organization for Migration found 70% of migrants traveling from Africa to Europe have been victims of human trafficking.
“We are in a social economic model where freedom is more connected to the money. They are free to move people who are not free to move,” said Sr. Bottani, “and what is really giving value to that reality is money.”
In the obscene world of underground exploitation, nothing is sacred. Forced marriage is another tactic used to deceive the vulnerable.
A decade ago, Ansa Noreen never thought she would be speaking on the world’s stage at the United Nations. She is a survivor determined to shed light on the clandestine market of women being sold into non-consensual marriages.
“So as soon as a girl reaches the age where she should be married, they would just force her into marriage,” Ansa explained.
These girls are forced to marry men who have already taken multiple wives. It’s a scam designed to take advantage of cultural traditions.
“They have this whole network with their agencies working in these developing countries, especially South Asian countries, where they arrange for girls from those societies – because they understand this is one of the weaknesses of these societies – because girls have to have a male head of the family in the form of their brother or father or husband,” Ansa said.
The goal is to change the mentality, explained Sr. Bottani, “To help them to understand that that is not normal to give a 12-year-old girl to be married to a 70 or 40, year-old man.”
“Some of them are sent into forced labor,” said Ansa, because some “families who are looking for domestic labor don’t want to pay the market price.” And then, “there are the fake marriages that lead to massage parlors, where girls are held against their will and sexually exploited. Most of them have to service 20 to 30 men a day.”
Globally, over 15 million victims are forced into unholy unions. A staggering number second only to forced labor, which affects an estimated 24.9 million people.
And though trafficking is seen as a blackmarket, it has a way of seeping into businesses.
For over four decades, Reverend David Schilling has traveled the world with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), working with businesses to protect human rights.
“Whether it’s in supply chains, whether it’s in the recruitment of workers, whether it’s in the hotel, the travel and tourism sector, where knowingly or unknowingly, hotels are utilized for commercial sexual exploitation,” he explained, “we have a responsibility to address trafficking and other human rights abuses by utilizing our influence and leverage as shareholder.”
The ICCR has 300 faith-driven members who all want to see human dignity at the forefront of business values. Sister Pat Daly is one of those members.
“So back maybe 15, almost 20 years ago now, after a long history of work with companies on human rights, we realized that human trafficking was now prevalent in countries,” she said. “We knew there was child labor in the chocolate industry, right? A number of industries and sectors had risk in their supply chain.”
Sister Daly points out the harsh reality that some products we buy and consume every day, like groceries, cars, clothes, even the fish on our dinner plates, could all be touched by the hands of slave laborers.
“So we started to work with companies,” said Sr. Daly.
In 2005, they took aim at the hospitality industry because a member noticed a legal case involving Marriott in Costa Rica, where children had been exploited.
“We filed a shareholder resolution, which is our right as shareholders that went to the company… and identified all the issues around the egregious violations of children’s rights and connected it to Marriott,” said Rev. Schilling.
And it worked. The multinational hospitality company, quickly developed new employee policies that helped lead to their latest program where 700,000 employees, in partnership with the anti-trafficking organization ECPAT-USA, are trained to spot exploitation.
Carol Smolenski is one of the people who helped implement the program.
“So we met several years ago, now realizing that we really needed to work with the travel industry, not because they explicitly support trafficking of children, but because their facilities, their hotels, their airlines, their tours might be a place where children are sexually exploited,” she said. “And so it took some convincing but right now we have all of the big U.S. hotel chains signed on with us.”
Businesses, advocates, survivors and the faithful are using all possible to means end modern-day slavery. But what will it take to completely defeat such evil?
“First, there are a lot of laws, but they need to be implemented,” Sister Bottani said. “Second thing, let us follow the money. The third thing is to tackle the root causes of trafficking.”