WASHINGTON (CNS) — Human trafficking is “an extremely lucrative enterprise. The risks are quite low,” said Limnyuy Konglim, education and outreach coordinator for the anti-trafficking program of the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services.
One reason for the low risk, according to Pope Francis, is that “many people have blood on their hands because of their silent complicity.” The pope also has called human trafficking “a scourge.”
About 12.3 million people are trafficked each year into forced labor or sexual exploitation, Konglim said, including an estimated 14,500 to 50,000 who are trafficked annually into the United States.
In a Feb. 3 human trafficking presentation during the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington, Konglim said new immigrants are vulnerable to exploitation because of debt they incur by paying smugglers who try to take them across borders; their lack of immigration status; the needs of family back home; language barriers; fear of law enforcement; and in some cases the insular nature of their ethnic community.
Natural disasters leave people vulnerable. Because they are unable to subsist on land ravaged by a disaster, people head to cities to seek work, only to be exploited into some kind of servitude.
Jill Marie Gerschutz Bell, a senior legislative specialist for Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ international aid and development agency, said that within a five-year period CRS had implemented 140 anti-trafficking initiatives in 35 countries, focusing on the three Ps: protection, prevention and prosecution.
Natural disasters, she said, leave people open to exploitation. Because they are unable to subsist on land ravaged by typhoons, earthquakes and floods, people head to the cities to seek work, only to be exploited into some kind of servitude.
The amount of devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines means that it would take an estimated “three to seven years for farms to be back to normal,” Gerschutz Bell said. In the meantime, “they don’t even have that kind of savings” to live on, “so they migrate to the cities,” she added.
She noted a joint CRS initiative with a journalists’ organization in Brazil that rescued more than 30,000 people from slave labor. The effort, which required the use of mobile units to retrieve the workers, was recognized by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization. At the end, Gerschutz Bell said, the employer goes on a “dirty list” so that prospective buyers can stay away from forced-labor goods.
Ashley Feasley, an MRS immigration policy adviser, said “supply chain awareness legislation” is in the works in Congress: the FORTE Act, for Fraudulent, Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination, introduced in the House.
Feasley said recruiters offer legal jobs to immigrants, but advise, “You need to pay a fee to apply for this job.” But because “their family can’t afford this, they turn to loan sharks, or to the recruitment company” for a high-interest loan, she added. “The worker feels he cannot turn (it) around.”
Moreover, the job often pays less than was promised, the housing provided is “basically inhumane,” and the recruiter holds on to the immigrant’s legal documents, Feasley said.
With the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, MRS’ anti-trafficking program has launched the Dignity of Work program to provide employment services to those not eligible for benefits previously. The program is active in six U.S. archdioceses and one diocese.
A U.S. Justice Department grant is enabling MRS, in conjunction with Georgetown University, to conduct a two-year research project to present a profile of survivors of human trafficking and to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions to stabilize, rehabilitate and integrate them into the wider American society. The project’s objective is to better understand the characteristics of trafficked victims and the efficacy of different intervention strategies in stabilizing their well-being.
For U.S. Catholics, MRS has a “Become a SHEPHERD” program, for Stop Human Trafficking and Exploitation, Protect, Help, Empower and Restore Dignity, with resources on how citizens can lend material and spiritual support to anti-trafficking efforts. MRS estimates it has helped more than 3,000 human trafficking survivors and their family members begin the road to recovery and rebuild their lives.
MRS also has launched a pilot program called the Amistad Movement, after the slave ship whose human cargo revolted and took control. The Amistad Movement is a human trafficking education and awareness campaign for immigrant communities.
With immigrants more vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking because they work in such poorly regulated industries like agriculture, domestic, hospitality, and service, MRS staff trains individuals to conduct outreach and educate their peers on human trafficking and resources and services available for victims.