When it comes to fighting human trafficking, governments  and religious orders are finding valuable common ground

Though a sprawling network of Catholic activists, usually featuring determined members of women’s religious orders, are helping to lead today’s social and humanitarian crusade against human trafficking and modern-day slavery, they know they need the unique resources and powers of governments to turn the tide.

An April 18 Rome summit on consumerism suggested that at least some governments around the world are listening.

“Traffickers are inventive, they make increasing use of technology and they’re very inventive,” said Prince Jaime De Bourbon De Parme, ambassador of the Netherlands to the Holy See, summing up the observations of his country’s law enforcement community.

“It’s about money, lots of money, and governments have to be inventive as well in fighting it,” he said.

De Parme was speaking at an April 18 event sponsored by the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission, a body jointly sponsored by the Union of Superiors General and the International Union of Superiors General, the main umbrella groups in Rome for men’s and women’s orders around the world.

The event was titled “Consumerism: A Push Factor in Human Trafficking,” and was devoted to exploring how demand for prostitution and other illicit services often drives an illegal industry estimated at around $150 billion and believed to be the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, now outpacing even the drug trade.

“Consumerism has a catalytic role in human smuggling, prostitution, forced labor, human trafficking and the drug trade,” said Godwin George Umo, ambassador of Nigeria to the Holy See and a former general in the Nigerian military who’s written widely on corruption, terrorism and security issues.

One hopeful sign in the struggle against trafficking, Umo said, is that it’s essentially apolitical, attracting support from leaders from a wide variety of backgrounds and outlooks. To prove the point, he cited the fact that both Pope Francis and President Donald Trump have flagged ending human trafficking as a social and political priority.

De Parme made essentially the same point.

“Trump and the pope are usually seen as two extremes, yet they’re both quite concerned about human trafficking,” he said. “This is an issue that really doesn’t have any political coloring.”

After tracing the growth of modern consumer culture, Umo noted that one of its defining features is planned obsolescence: “You just get the Samsung 8, and within three months you see the Samsung 9 is out,” he said, laughing.

When it comes to trafficking, Umo said, consumer appetite is a major part of the problem.

“If there is no demand, there will be no supply,” he said. “If people don’t want these things, there would be no money to be made from them.”

De Parme, who recently helped launch a Responsible Mining Index to help trace illegal minerals extracted from conflict zones such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, told the Rome meeting that “today we’re not talking about smuggling minerals around the world, but smuggling people.”

He called modern-day slavery a “blight of society as a whole.”

De Parme said that in recent years, the government of the Netherlands has come to the realization that the country is a major destination of victims, and has begun waking up to the need to combat the trade. 

One factor that’s helped fuel the determination, he said, is the realization that 30 percent of trafficking victims in the sex trade are actually of Dutch nationality.

“This is a massive problem that touches our sisters and daughters,” he said. “It’s a deeply rooted national problem.”

Nevertheless, De Parme acknowledged that the country’s resources are presently strained in light of the real scope of what they’re up against.

“Right now, our police are over-burdened with registering refugees, which gives them less manpower to focus on combatting trafficking,” he said, estimating that the Dutch police are “about 100 people short.”

Also, De Parme said, many trafficking victims from abroad who end up in the Netherlands choose not to report their situation to police, because they’re also making asylum requests and don’t want anything to derail their prospects.

Still, he cited several positive antitrafficking measures the Netherlands has adopted.

First, he said a law is under consideration to criminalize receiving sexual services for payment from anyone the client knows, or should have known, has been coerced into the act. It’s clearly meant as a deterrent, he said, to reduce the demand for trafficking victims.

Second, he said, outreach programs have been launched for victims, especially young boys involved in the sex trade. 

They’re less recognized as potential victims of coerced prostitution, he said, and often counselors and social services professionals aren’t trained to respond adequately to the unique circumstances they face.

Third, De Parme said, detection tools are being developed to identify possible trafficking victims among persons with “slight or full intellectual disabilities,” whom he described as being “especially vulnerable.”

Fourth, De Parme said that one new frontier for traffickers is the digitalization of the trafficking trade, with the internet being used increasingly both to lure victims and also to offer illicit services for sale.

On the other hand, De Parme said, “technology can also be used against traffickers.” He cited the example of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where police and citizens together are using webcams to scan potential pathways for trafficking victims online, and assess the risks that a particular location may be a hotspot for trafficking activity.

Overall, he said, the goal of the Dutch approach to perpetrators can be simply stated: “To make their life a hell of a lot more difficult.”

Later, Nigerian Sister Dorothy Ezeh, a social pedagogist who works with young female victims of trafficking and prostitution, struck a sober note about the success of such efforts.

“Trafficking will never be ended,” she said. “Our goal is to minimize it.”

Still, Umo from Nigeria suggested that governments can at least play a robust role in that minimization effort.

“This is something we cannot fail to address because it’s at the very heart of so many problems today,” he said.