VATICAN CITY (CNS) — An unrelenting, coordinated commitment is needed to prevent people from falling prey to traffickers and to help victims caught in their snares, Pope Francis told representatives of law enforcement agencies and church leaders.
The growing number of people being trafficked and exploited are “the most vulnerable” people in society; they are stripped of their dignity, physical and mental integrity and sometimes even their life, the pope said Oct. 27 during an audience with the Santa Marta Group.
Thanking and encouraging the group members for their fight against this “social evil,” Pope Francis reiterated that “what is needed is a coordinated, effective and constant commitment, both to eliminate the causes of this complex phenomenon and to reach, assist and accompany the people who fall into the snares of trafficking.”
The Santa Marta Group is an international coalition of senior law enforcement chiefs and members of the Catholic Church — including bishops’ conferences and religious orders — working together to end human trafficking. The group was founded in 2014 as part of an initiative begun by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. The name “Santa Marta” refers to the Vatican guest house, where Pope Francis lives, and where police chiefs and Catholic bishops held their first meeting.
The group, which now has members in more than 30 countries, met at the Vatican Oct. 26-27 to detail progress being made, share best practices and update the pope on their efforts. Nearly 21 million people, including minors, are believed to be victims of human trafficking, according to the International Labor Organization.
English Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, the group’s president, told reporters that while human trafficking is still not a top priority in many parts of the world, much has been done to finally expose “this great evil.”
“Voices that were once completely hidden are now being heard and misery that was once unacknowledged is now being acknowledged,” he said at a Vatican news conference Oct. 27.
Two survivors of trafficking — Al Bangura and Princess Inyang — also spoke at the conference and detailed how they were tricked by traffickers with promises of legitimate job offers and opportunities.
Bangura, a talented soccer player in Sierra Leone, was lured to Paris then London as a teenager by a man claiming to be an agent signing him up to play for a European soccer team; instead he was trapped in a hotel “where older men began to turn up” and rape him.
Inyang worked as a cook in Nigeria and headed to Europe to pursue a job offer there. Instead she was forced into prostitution in Italy and coerced into paying the “madam” 45,000 euro (more than $49,000) in fees and even more in rent.
Both managed eventually to escape their captors, rebuild their lives, and now they help raise awareness to prevent others from being tricked.
Better prevention also entails giving young people real opportunities by setting up more educational scholarships and skills-building projects in their countries of origin, Inyang told reporters.
Law enforcement also needs to do more to investigate, prosecute and arrest traffickers, not the victims, she said. “Reception” or protection shelters should be set up for suspected victims of trafficking instead of housing them in detention centers while their cases are investigated, she added.
It’s not always easy for police responding to an incident to clearly identify whether a person breaking the law has been coerced into it by traffickers, said Kevin Hyland, the former detective inspector of Scotland Yard’s trafficking and organized crime unit.
Traffickers often delegate riskier crimes, for example, petty theft or tending illegal cannabis farms, to their victims, he told Catholic News Service.
Very often victims are found in situations that make them “look the same as an offender” to an untrained officer or to one “unwilling to explore further,” he said.
In an effort to improve law enforcement’s response, the United Kingdom passed the Modern Slavery Act, giving officers new mandates meant to increase protection for victims and increase convictions and tougher sentencing on criminals.
Hyland said the 2015 act created his new role as Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, a role designed to better identify and support victims, improve the legal and justice systems’ response to trafficking and build diverse and effective partnerships.
For example, the close collaboration between law enforcement and the church with the Santa Marta Group “is actually quite a natural fit because the church reaches out to the vulnerable, offers that extended arm and support, and the police are there then to actually remove the threat of those committing these crimes.”
Police officers, too, have become more sensitive and cooperative with other agencies over the years, he said.
For example, three decades ago, an officer responding to domestic violence would not have understood the psychological coercion at play preventing a battered spouse from pressing charges or getting help, he said.
“Now the approach has changed” and “policing does know how to deal with vulnerability,” which might include looking for other ways to deal with the situation and requesting “other interventions” from different kinds of agencies. “Also taking away the offender and putting in protection for the victim is essential,” he added.
“So within law enforcement there is that ability to show compassion, to work in a way that deals with the victim’s needs and also pursues the perpetrators,” he said.