Human trafficking is a “shadow industry” and an example of slavery’s persistence, Archbishop of Portland, Oregon John Vlazny has said. Discussing how Catholics can help combat the crime, he recommended former slave St. Josephine Bakhita as a patroness for its victims.
Writing in his Jan. 14 column in the Catholic Sentinel, Archbishop Vlazny explained that the illegal trade of human beings is the second fastest-growing criminal trade in the world after the drug trade.
Victims are subjected to fraud or coercion and many are forced to work in prostitution. Trafficked people also face labor exploitation in fields such as domestic servitude, restaurant and janitorial work, sweatshop factory work and migrant agricultural work.
“In many respects human trafficking is a shadow industry. Not many folks know anything about it,” the archbishop continued.
He reported that more than 18,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. annually for sexual exploitation or forced labor. According to a conservative estimate from the Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, about one-third of foreign-born victims are children.
U.S. citizens are sometimes trafficked within the country, but estimates on their numbers are not available.
Archbishop Vlazny noted that the Catholic Sentinel in 2009 had reported on trafficking in Oregon, adding that Catholic Charities of Portland works hard to serve victims of the crime.
Last year the Sentinel reported that Oregon police said they were encountering three to five victims of trafficking per week. About 80 percent were women and half were children.
The archbishop said that the global nature of the Catholic Church makes her well-positioned to respond.
“This crime is clearly an offense against human dignity and fundamental human rights. It is indeed [a] modern slave trade at work in our midst,” he wrote.
Archbishop Vlazny reported that a coalition of Catholic organizations have been established to eliminate the “scourge” of human trafficking. Members plan how to help victims and meet with government officials and others about relevant public policy.
The coalition members also strategize about how to educate the public.
Catholic Charities of Portland, he said, has created questions to help determine if suspected victims have indeed been trafficked. They should be asked if they have been forced to work against their will, if they can leave their job if they have to, and if they or their families have been threatened.
Additionally, victims can be asked where they sleep and eat, if there are locks on doors or windows to prevent them from leaving, or if their identification or documentation has been taken from them.
Archbishop Vlazny noted that victims of human trafficking do not know that they are eligible for public benefits and legal immigration status. The law considers them victims, not criminals, even if they agreed to be brought into the country for a job or if their current employment is illegal.
Because human trafficking is modern day slavery, the archbishop continued, St. Josephine Bakhita has been suggested as a patron for victims of trafficking. Born in Africa, she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders at the age of nine and sold and resold five times in the Sudanese slave markets.
After much brutality, she was purchased by an Italian diplomat and left in the custody of the Canossian Sisters. She was baptized at the age of 21, became a nun and ministered in Italy for 45 years.
There is interest in the Archdiocese of Portland for designating her feast day, Feb. 8, as a day of prayer and penance for victims of trafficking. A Feb. 8 service for trafficking victims will be held at Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, Archbishop Vlazny reported.
“It is my hope that similar prayer services will eventually be held in other churches across the archdiocese on this feast, another way of highlighting the seriousness of the crime and the desperate need for conversion on the part of individuals who are engaged in this horrendous practice.”
“Unfortunately, slavery perdures and many of us remain blissfully unaware,” the archbishop concluded.
He encouraged his readers to learn more about the crime and anti-trafficking efforts. He also asked for prayers for all trafficking victims, through the intercession of St. Josephine Bakhita, that they will be freed and that their rights will be restored.