UNITED NATIONS (CNS) — One goal of a July 13 event at the United Nations on human trafficking was “to make real the faces of the nearly 2 million children and youth who are presently being trafficked,” said the Vatican’s U.N. nuncio.
Another was for participants to discuss “what’s working, what’s not working and what needs to be done to free them, help them recover, and prevent other young people from suffering as they have,” said Archbishop Bernardito Auza, who heads the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission at the U.N.
He made the comments in his opening remarks at the event, titled “Eliminating the Trafficking of Children and Youth.”
It was sponsored by Vatican U.N. mission along with the NGO Committee to Stop Trafficking in Persons, the Salesian Missions, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and ECPAT-USA, an organization that advocates for federal and state legislation that prevents exploitation of children.
Speakers called for greater awareness and stronger policies to combat the roots of human trafficking among children and youth. They also discussed the best methods to combat what they say is a growing scourge of children and youth who are trafficked for sex or work.
The Catholic Church has long fought against human trafficking in its teaching and in its work “on the ground,” said Archbishop Auza.
“The Second Vatican Council, St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI all spoke out passionately and forcefully against the infamy of human trafficking and the widespread hedonistic and commercial culture that encourages this systematic exploitation of human dignity and rights,” he said.
Pope Francis has taken the church’s action and advocacy to another level, according to the archbishop, who pointed out that the pontiff has repeatedly denounced trafficking in his writings, including exhortations, speeches and letters.
“While human trafficking always exploits the vulnerable, the trafficking of children and youth exploits those most vulnerable of all,” Archbishop Auza said.
Yu Ping Chan, program management officer of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, described the forms human trafficking takes, including sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of victims’ organs to sell to black marketers for transplantation.
A 2015 report from her office, she said, showed that one in three known victims of human trafficking are children, with women and girls accounting for 70 percent of all trafficking victims worldwide.
The United Nations has programs and departments in place to combat trafficking, said Chan, but she emphasized the need for more effective and robust use of existing tools.
Speaker Sheila McClain, director of survivor services for End Slavery Tennessee, knows about trafficking firsthand. She said she was subjected to sexual abuse and trafficking at the hands of her own mother as a child.
Her experiences help her assist those who have endured similar situations. Factors such as poverty, addictions — she acquired an addiction herself as a result of being trafficked — and a lack of life skills made it difficult for her to leave those who exploited her.
“We all have the stories of being duct taped, tied up and put in trunks but that is not who I am,” she said. “I am more than my story.”
Mercy Sister Angela Reed, who is with Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans, emphasized the importance of gathering each woman’s personal narrative to find causes and solutions.
Demand is the main cause of trafficking, she said, and the victims’ lack of life’s basic necessities, like housing, food and education, make them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Young girls who have survived trafficking and returned to their communities also are severely stigmatized, Sister Reed added.
Kevin Cassidy, of the International Labor Organization, discussed trafficking children for labor. He said that policymakers and the private sector have a role in eliminating such exploitation. He said urged businesses only use slavery-proof supply chains and said consumers can wield their own buying power to avoid companies that use slave labor.
Smart policies include supporting decent pay for decent work, he said. “When you drive down the wages, you are putting people at risk.”
Jayne Bigelsen, director of anti-human trafficking Initiatives at Covenant House in New York City, said that an overwhelming number of homeless youth are susceptible to trafficking since they are unlikely to have family looking for them.
She also noted the trend among homeless youth of selling their bodies in exchange for a place to stay and other basic needs, which traffickers and pimps exploit.
Carol Smolenski, of ECPAT-USA, said the internet creates a platform for traffickers to lure child victims as well as connect with consumers seeking child pornography and prostitution.
Eighty percent of children depicted in materials seized by police are prepubescent, she noted, with a growing number of infants represented.
“There is a huge growth in younger and younger kids being raped and having pictures and videos of it shared on the internet,” Smolenski said.
At the same time, she noted, governments around the world are mobilizing “to do something about it” global online databases and initiatives that help identify and rescue exploited children.