On Monday, Pope Francis urged all people, and youth in particular, to meet with victims of human trafficking in order to learn more about how to fight the scourge of modern-day slavery.
Youth are in “a privileged place to encounter the survivors of human trafficking,” the Pope said Feb. 12. “Go to you parishes, to an association close to home, meet them, listen to them.”
Change starts with encounter, he said, so “don’t be afraid to encounter them. Open your hearts, let them enter, be ready to change.”
He urged youth who have been victims to speak out to others in order to help protect them and make them aware of the risks.
“Everyone who has been a victim of trafficking is an inexhaustible source of support for new victims and it's important [to listen to them],” the Pope said, adding that “youth who have encountered organized crime can play a key role in describing the dangers.”
He also encouraged young people to overcome fear and learn the warning signs of trafficking.
Pope Francis spoke off-the-cuff Monday at a question-and-answer session falling a few days after the World Day of Reflection Against Human Trafficking.
During the encounter, Francis received questions from five youth — four women and one man — both migrants and non-migrants, who asked about how young people in the Church can fight the conditions in which trafficking thrives and how they can help other young people from falling into the illusions presented by traffickers.
Pope Francis stressed the importance of encounter. He thanked all the parishes, schools and institutions that listened to his 2015 appeal for every parish, shrine, religious community and monastery in Europe to welcome a family of refugees.
“I ask you present here today to work in favor of opening to the other, above all when they are wounded in their own dignity,” he said.
Social networks and media can also play a key role in helping to create these spaces, the Pope said, explaining that “the internet can offer great possibilities for encounter and solidarity among everyone, and this is a good thing, it's a gift from God.”
However, these networks can also be misused, he said, noting that “for every instrument that is offered to us, the choice that man decides to make is fundamental.”
Underlying the scourge of human trafficking, the Pope said, is not only a significant amount of ignorance, but also “little will to understand the extent of the problem.”
This, he said, is because it touches our consciences: “A country that does or allows trafficking doesn't like that this comes to light, because it would embarrass them a lot, so they cover it.”
Hypocrisy from those who condemn human trafficking while at the same time taking advantage of trafficked laborers or sex slaves presents a major obstacle to the abolition of trafficking, he said.
Speaking out against this can be an easier task for youth, the Pope said, because “they are less structured in their thought, less obscured by prejudices, more free to reason with their own mind. Youth don't have anything to lose.”
He called trafficking a “crime against humanity” and a form of slavery which is “unfortunately increasingly widespread, which involves every country, even the most developed, and touches the most vulnerable people in society: women and young girls, children, the disabled, the most poor, whoever comes from situations of familial or social disintegration.”
“We need a common responsibility and a stronger political will to succeed on this front,” he said.
Pope Francis also highlighted education as a concrete means of helping other young people avoid the snares and illusions of traffickers. He pointed to the example of St. John Bosco, who established schools and a center for prayer and education to welcome boys living on the street.
“Education is the name of peace. Education is also the name of development...never children without an education. This is the first step,” the Pope said.
He also discussed the conditions that can pave the way for trafficking, such as extreme poverty and unemployment, violence, and corruption in government.
For those who have been victims of trafficking, the Church can offer guidance in the healing and rebuilding process, Pope Francis said, explaining that the Church “has always wanted to be at the side of people who suffer, in particular children and youth, protecting them and promoting their integral human development.”
This is especially true for minors “who are often 'invisible', subject to danger and threats, alone and manipulable,” he said. “We want, also in the most precarious realities, to be your grain of hope and support, because God is always with you.”
Pope Francis also voiced hope that those who have witnessed the dangers of trafficking would find at the upcoming Synod of Bishops “a place to express themselves, from which to call the Church into action.”
The Synod, which will be held this October in Rome, will discuss young people, the faith, and vocational discernment. The Synod is primarily a gathering of bishops, but about a dozen young people will also participate.
However, some 350 young people will participate in a pre-synod meeting at the Vatican next month. Pope Francis encouraged those present at the trafficking Q-and-A to contact organizers and ask to participate in that event.