In 2018, the Global Slavery Index highlighted that 40.3 million people were in modern slavery, with 15.4 million in forced marriage and 24.9 million in forced labour. Of these, 71 percent are women and 29 percent are men, revealing the gendered nature of trafficking which taps into stereotypes. The majority of women are trafficked for sexual exploitation and domestic servitude, whereas the majority of men are trafficked for labour exploitation.
‘Stop the Flow: Let’s End Human Trafficking’, a webinar co-organised by the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation on 30 July2021, which was World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, offered the participants an opportunity to listen to the stories behind the statistics.
In keeping with the annual theme, “Victims’ Voices Lead the Way," the emphasis was on empowering survivors as key actors in the fight against human trafficking. The organisers invited Abie, a survivor of human trafficking now associated with the BATIS Centre in the Philippines, to share her life experiences. We heard how Abie herself was now a community leader, reaching out to women and educating them on the crime, providing information on safe and legal means of migration and employment, and generally building their capacities so as not to provide any opportunities for traffickers to exploit them. Hearing from Abie revealed the excellent potential of honouring and amplifying the voices of survivors as part of effective and comprehensive anti-trafficking strategies.
As I reflected on the implications of Abie’s story, I realised that to eradicate trafficking in all its forms, it is important to understand two causal factors – the traffickers that consciously and deliberately choose to exploit and enslave other human beings, and the institutions that benefit from trafficking and enable it to thrive, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
The trafficker, or the perpetrator, functions with the motive of benefitting monetarily from the exploitation and enslavement of other human beings. Traffickers are extremely adept at locating the weak spots of people, detecting those moments when they are most vulnerable, tapping into their worst fears, or even manipulating their realities. They earn trust by establishing personal bonds, pretending to be genuinely invested in the wellbeing of the potential victim, and entrenching themselves more deeply in the victim’s life – perhaps by offering an employment opportunity or a secure place to stay, or even offering a sense of belonging and affection. This is how these perpetrators increase their power – the power of not just offering to provide what has been missing in the victim’s life, but the power to take it all away.
The institutions that sustain trafficking are not simply markets where the purchase and sale of human beings takes place, or the industries that endorse or profit from cheap and forced labour. It includes those systems that perpetuate inequality – of wealth, of status, of gender and sex, of education, and of access to justice. Any system that increases the vulnerability of a person invariably pushes them to the margins, where they then become prey to traffickers.
Certain institutions are demonstrating some success in detection. For example, a major hotel brand recently rolled out guidelines to recognise and respond to potential trafficking situations on their premises. Some hospitals and healthcare institutions are training their staff on identifying signs of trafficking when victims when come to seek medical help.
However, when churches talk about human trafficking, our actions must not simply be reactive or in retrospect, we are called to intervene even before the crime occurs, that is, our actions must be prospective. While the importance of redress and obtaining justice for victims cannot be understated, churches must also analyse those gaps and spaces where victims may fall through, visibilise red flags that go undetected, and work towards the holistic achievement of equality and justice. Building stronger community ties and being in attentive solidarity with members will enable churches to reach out to potential victims and address the needs they lack in their lives, be it financial support or emotional support. This is the pastoral care that is highly needed in our congregations and in wider society.
This is not an easy task – the crime itself is termed as “invisible,” meaning that it is dynamic, it is transitional, and it is able to morph into any form to fit the circumstances. Take, for example, the transformation of trafficking for sexual exploitation under the COVID-19 pandemic. Pre-pandemic exploitation occurred on the streets, now it occurs on the screen. Through grooming and other enticements, women and children are pushed to sell their bodies online. Consider even trafficking for labour exploitation, where due to the closures of borders, migrant workers trapped overseas were exploited for their labour under threat of deportation due to the expiration of valid work permits/visas, or how because of lockdowns and movement restrictions, victims have been unable to escape abusive employers. Look at how the global economic meltdown is sinking people, especially children, into stubborn and unrelenting poverty and debt traps, forcing them into servitude.
As we begin to recover from the pandemic, there is so much to do. We must interpret the challenge of trafficking in light of the WCC’s Assembly – “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity”. We must reach out to potential victims and survivors, ‘loving not with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth’ (2 John 3:18). We must move ourselves to be with those at the margins, whom traffickers prey on. We must advocate against those systems which create more vulnerabilities to trafficking for some communities than others, push for stronger legislation to weed out traffickers from online spaces, and fight for economic equality and empowerment. We must design solutions to not simply accord justice for survivors, but prevent human trafficking itself. We must restore the stolen dreams of these generations of children, women, and men, and reconcile them to healing, hope, and love.