UNITED NATIONS (CNS) — It’s not enough to rescue victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation — they must be given supportive care to address their trauma, and tools to live economically independent lives free from abuse.
That was the view of speakers at a March 22 U.N. panel that was co-sponsored by the Vatican’s permanent observer mission to the United Nations.
Representatives of religious, nonprofit and government agencies addressed “Economically Empowering Trafficking Survivors to Stay Permanently Off the Streets.”
Trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world today, speakers said. Estimates vary of the number of people ensnared by human slavery, but most agree more than 20 million people worldwide are exploited as modern slaves.
“This evil phenomenon of trafficking in persons is complex and has many ramifications,” said Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.N.
“One of the most hopeful developments in recent years,” he continued, “has been the advent of an increasing number of individuals, organizations, governments and advocates at the international, national and local levels to fight against this atrocious scourge and crime against humanity and help those who have been victimized by it leave slavery and be rehabilitated patiently and compassionately toward true freedom.”
A common misperception is that human slavery and trafficking are restricted to distant places, speakers said.
“Often good, caring people are unaware that it’s happening in their own backyard and is not limited to poor people overseas. Education is key to breaking these myths,” said Sister Joan S. Dawber, a Sister of Charity. She is the founder and executive director of LifeWay Network, an organization that operates four safe houses in the New York area for women who have been trafficked.
At each of the LifeWay Network safe houses, three religious sisters, a house manager, a social worker and trained volunteers follow a community living model of “trauma informed care” to provide a supportive environment for women to recover their health, dignity and self-determination, Sister Dawber said.
“We practice healing through holistic services. Each woman has unique needs for her mind, body and spirit,” she said. Education and economic empowerment are the underpinnings to a successful transformation.
Peter DiMarzio, victim assistance specialist who works throughout New England for Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said most of the victims he encounters are U.S. citizens between ages 16 and 35. “Almost all are addicted to heroin, which is a barrier to getting them into drug-free safe houses,” he said.
A five-day detox program won’t address a three-to-five-year addiction, he said. The ideal safe house facility would provide continuity of care and include detox and transitional living services so people who relapsed would have a supportive environment.
DiMarzio said the Homeland Security program offers three types of visas to help foreign nationals who are trafficked to the United States.
Mercy Sister Lynda Dearlove founded Women@The Well, a British charity that helps sexually exploited women and girls leave prostitution and transition to healthy self-sufficiency.
The women are generally drug or alcohol abusers, have underlying mental health issues, a history of violence or abuse, ongoing mental trauma and experience shame, guilt, self-blame and stigma, Sister Dearlove said.
Their exit from prostitution “can only be facilitated, not forced. We can initiate a discussion of exit as a realistic and achievable goal,” she said, and provide personalized “victim-informed” services to enable their transition to economic independence.
“The buying of sexual acts should be criminalized,” she said. Sexual exploitation responds to demand.
“The demand is everywhere and supply comes to meet the demand. The demand is fueled by the idea that it’s OK that women’s bodies are commodified,” Sister Dearlove said. “Male power, prostitution and rape are intertwined and women are forced (to act) to keep their children safe.”
The problem will only be solved when there is a collective decision to tackle the demand and make it socially unacceptable to purchase women’s bodies, she said. Sweden, the first country to criminalize buyers and decriminalize women in the sex trade saw a dramatic drop in demand, Sister Dearlove said.
Jon Lynes is an executive vice president of Operation Underground Railroad, an organization founded in 2013 to rescue and aid trafficking victims and secure justice for the traffickers. It trains and works with local law enforcements groups around the world.
“Law enforcement needs to understand that those trafficked are not criminals, they are victims and need to be treated as such. They are held by force, fraud and coercion,” Lynes said. The group helps indigenous organizations to provide “after care” including vocational training that addresses local needs.
“There is no true rescue without healing. There is no true healing without eventual independence. Meaningful vocational training will bridge the gap between institutional care and independent living,” he said.
Nancy Rivard, president of Airline Ambassadors International, said her independent organization helps the airline industry address the “dark reality” of trafficking. Commercial air travel is frequently used to move victims and “no airline is exempt,” she said.
Airline Ambassadors trains airline personnel to identify and aid victims and encourages travel industry executives to hire survivors as trainers and to fill other positions, Rivard said.
The standing-room-only panel was a side event to the United Nations’ 61st Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Other co-sponsors of the discussion were the Order of Malta’s permanent observer mission of the U.N. and the Universal Peace Federation.