A conference on human trafficking and modern-day slavery was held at the Vatican Feb. 8-9, bringing together church leaders and senior police officers from more than 30 different countries to discuss progress and setbacks in initiatives.
It was the fifth meeting of the Santa Marta Group, a Pope Francis-endorsed international alliance of police and bishops, since its formation in 2014. The group was developed by the Catholic Bishops' Conference for England and Wales (CBCEW) and is named after the building where Francis lives in the Vatican.
The two-day meeting included reports from delegates of 18 countries, and several international agencies, as well as presentations by Greg Burke of the Holy See Press Office and Alexander DesForges, spokesperson of the England and Wales bishops’ conference.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster, told journalists Feb. 9 that he was “humbled” by what he heard from delegates. “What was important in this meeting was that members were willing to share their sense of failure as well as their sense of success,” he said.
Often in these kinds of meetings “it's all about saying how good we are, what we are going to do, our promises...” he noted. But this time, people felt comfortable enough with each other “to say, ‘Well, actually, we’re just beginning,’ or ‘Actually, this didn’t work,’” he said.
Nichols explained that estimates say there are 42 million people around the world currently enslaved in some form. “The drama of human trafficking,” he said, “has never been greater ever… than it is at this moment.”
Archbishop Augustine Akubeze of Benin City, Nigeria, was also present at the conference. He told journalists that the Nigerian bishops’ conference joined the Santa Marta Group because their country is one of the major countries of origin for trafficked people.
He said that because of the Santa Marta Group, the Nigerian government has become more aware of the issue and started to do more to tackle the problem, which he said stems in particular from a lack of education and a lack of jobs.
When people are in poverty, they are more easily tempted into trafficking, whether as a perpetrator or as a victim, he said. They also run awareness programs and teach in schools to help young people not be taken in by perpetrators.
They bring people to the Santa Marta Group meetings in order to “seek out more good ideas,” Akubeze said, “and then we go back home and try to do something.”
Cardinal Charles Bo, archbishop of Yangon in Bangladesh said that listening to the experiences of delegates from four different continents was interesting and the greatest advantage he personally gained during these meetings.
“After listening to the positive side as well as the weakness and the realities of human trafficking I think many of us who are working in this group have a new determination really to eradicate this curse of human trafficking,” he said.
Pope Francis met with participants of the conference at its conclusion Feb. 9. Speaking to Church and police leaders from around the world, he said that “experience shows that such modern forms of slavery are far more widespread than previously imagined, even — to our scandal and shame — within the most prosperous of our societies.”
“God’s cry to Cain, found in the first pages of the Bible — ‘Where is your brother?’ — challenges us to examine seriously the various forms of complicity by which society tolerates, and encourages, particularly with regard to the sex trade, the exploitation of vulnerable men, women and children,” he continued.
Francis said that initiatives to combat human trafficking must look not only at dismantling criminal structures, but also responsible use of technology and media. He added that we should also explore the ethical implications of economic models which put profit before people.
“I trust that your discussions in these days will also help to raise awareness of the growing need to support victims of these crimes by accompanying them on a path of reintegration into society and the recovery of their human dignity,” he said.
“The Church is grateful for every effort made to bring the balm of God’s mercy to the suffering, for this also represents an essential step in the healing and renewal of society as a whole.”