Hiding in Plain Sight


On the flight over to Rome to attend the Pope’s Conference on Human Trafficking last week, I recalled the long running Broadway play and movie, A Funny thing Happened on the Way to Forum, starring the great actor Zero Mostel. This farcical comedy is based on an ancient play set in B. C. Rome, where a slave named Pseudolus tries to negotiate his freedom from his slave owner, Hero. The famous line in the movie goes like this: 

Hero, the Slave Owner: “People do not go around freeing slaves every day.”

Pseudolus, the Slave: “Be the first. Start a fashion.”

Ironically, in 2013 A.D., Pope Francis is compelled to call a conference of global experts entitled, “Trafficking in Human Beings: Modern Slavery” to address the alarming increase in the trade in human beings as one of the pressing political social and economic problems associated with globalization. 

Freeing modern slaves has not yet become fashionable.  So much for progress!

Pope Francis specifically requested that the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Sciences convene a working group to study modern forms of slavery, including the trafficking of people for sex and labor, and trafficking of human organs. Francis personally greeted the assembled global anti trafficking experts.  Clearly, he understands the tragedy of human trafficking from his days as Cardinal Bergolio of Buenos Aires where there are 60,000 women in 8,000 illegal brothels, and the highest consumption of cocaine in Latin America, with 2.6% of the population being addicted or a consumer of cocaine run by the Mexican and Colombian cartels. The Pontiff challenged the conference participants that  “the Church as a whole isn’t sufficiently aware of the problem or hasn’t focused deeply enough on how serious a problem.” 

This Pope leads with his heart. He is a man of the poor in the streets of Argentina and around the world. He knows the suffering poor, the disenfranchised, and the enslaved. Modern day slavery is not a distant notion for him. Cardinal Bergolio would often come in the “dead of night to help women escaping violent Buenos Aires brothel owners find shelter.” 

 Yet no country is free from human trafficking. The rich countries create the demand and the poor countries provide the supply.   This heinous crime against humanity knows no political or geographic boundaries, crosses all cultures and defies quantification. 

 What is the scope of this global problem? Here’s the sad reality: No one really knows. This is a covert crime carried out in the shadows with terrified and silenced victims, so hidden and disguised that they can’t be counted, tracked, and seldom rescued. The best estimates are that nearly 30 million people live in modern slavery across the globe, many of them women and children who are trafficked by organized crime gangs for sexual exploitation and forced labor. 

 Human trafficking thrives because it is a lucrative trade, generating roughly $32 billion annually and its fungible product is hiding in plain sight. Why is human trafficking becoming more lucrative and desirable than guns and drugs? Guns and drugs can be sniffed out by dogs, and are easily identifiable as contraband. Humans are not. Certainly human trafficking victims do not self identify as victims, because they are coerced, threatened, lied to, beaten into silent submission. Once drugs are sold, they are used and gone.  Yet, a woman or child can be sold repeatedly.  

 Traffickers now have an immediate hotline to contract their illegal business deals, the Internet. With 2 billion people around the world now connected to the Internet, access by criminals is instantaneous. Email orders, message boards, and texts advertise children and women for sex, and deliver them through the Internet marketplace.   These criminal organizations operate without impunity because investigations and prosecutions of traffickers are very complex, and sadly, rare.   Experts believe that 87% of the trafficking is for sex and the remainder for forced labor.  Both venues prey on vulnerable women and children. 

 Sex Trafficking is a thriving business in the United States. In the U.S., it is estimated that 2 out of the 3 trafficked victims are underage girls. Some 300,000 American children have been forced into sex trafficking, most of them vulnerable children who have run away from foster care and dysfunctional homes. 

American citizens also fuel the demand for sex trafficking as child sex tourists. The global anti trafficking NGO, ECPAT estimates that 25% of child sex tourists are from the U.S. and Americans constitute 80% of child sex tourists in Latin America. 

 The Catholic Church provides the choke points in the supply and demand chain of human trafficking. She is the holy boots on the ground preventing, intervening and rehabilitating human trafficking victims. With the missionary church serving victims in cities, towns and villages around the world, the Church is uniquely situated to provide global leadership on this issue. At the heart of the scourge of human trafficking is the violation of the dignity of the human person. 

The prevention work of the Catholic Church, through thousands of lay and religious missionaries ensures the freedom and dignity of the individual. The work of the Catholic Church builds a safety net around potential trafficking victims through its church run schools, charity programs, adoption, and foster care work. Prevention cannot be measured in data. Yet, trafficking is stopped when Catholic faithful labor in the vineyard running schools in the African bush, orphanages in the slums of Calcutta, shelters for Argentinian street prostitutes, and the countless inner city churches and schools. The Church builds a powerful protective firewall of social services which prevent trafficking exploitation of vulnerable people.  

The work of the Church is always more effective and lasting because her labor begins and ends with prayer and is grounded in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Canossian Sisters Daughters of Charity attended the Pope’s conference. These Sisters work with trafficking victims in Italy and around the world. They asked Pope Francis for a worldwide day of prayer and fasting against trafficking to raise greater awareness in the Catholic Church about the issue. The Pope was very interested in the suggestion and the Sisters asked him to declare a day of fasting and prayer on February 8th, the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese slave, who was sold and resold, but found freedom in Italy and became a nun in the late 19th century.  St. Bakhita was canonized by John Paul II in 2000. The words of St. Bakhita, remind Catholics of the message of loving service and joyful evangelization which is the recurring theme of Pope Francis:

“The Lord has loved me so much: we must love everyone… we must be compassionate!”

 It’s time for all of us to start loving and noticing the victims hiding in plain sight.

ArticleLara Barger