UN event calls for comprehensive effort to dismantle trafficking, integrate survivors

(OSV News) -- A Catholic-inspired human rights group devoted to ending human trafficking took its case to the United Nations March 14, demanding comprehensive international strategies to make traffickers pay for their crimes while not stigmatizing their impoverished and vulnerable victims.

Representatives of the Santa Marta Group, an alliance launched in 2014 and named after the Santa Marta residence of Pope Francis, called for a "holistic approach" with common international policing standards, and spoke of the urgent need to deprive trafficking of the invisibility that allows it to flourish as a criminal enterprise.

Speakers were addressing the plight of an estimated 50 million people, about half of whom are women and children, who set out to flee poverty, crime and political violence only to find themselves trapped into low-wage factory and agricultural work, sexual slavery and online exploitation.

"Trafficking in human beings is a great evil that calls out for justice," said Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, the Holy See's representative to the United Nations since 2019.

The Santa Marta Group remarks were a side event to the U.N.'s 68th Commission on the Status of Women held at U.N. headquarters in New York. Although intended to focus on women and girls, speakers cited all kinds of exploitation of men, women and children.

Traffickers lure them with false promises of money, education, better jobs and sometimes the dowries that would enable them to be married.

Archbishop Caccia accused traffickers of treating women and girls "as objects to be discarded. All this hidden darkness must be brought into the light."

Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminister, who chairs the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, spoke of an anguished conversation he had with a trafficked woman in the north of England.

"Our job is to be a catalyst -- to bring together actors in this important battle," he said. This means "police agencies, social service agencies and church organizations. This is such a multifaceted challenge and a problem."

Kevin Hyland, a former head of the human trafficking unit of Scotland Yard and now a strategy officer for the Santa Marta Group, said governments, including and especially prosperous ones, need to treat trafficking as "a serious crime with a strong plan of prevention."

Additionally, he spoke of the need for "allowing survivors to become members of society without stigma."

Improving prosecution and responses is crucial, Hyland said, but it "must be connected to systemic change."

"The state and its agencies have to implement strategies to make it nigh impossible to be able to traffick people -- and that criminal prosecution will be inevitable."

Additionally, Hyland said, "a shift in the regulation of the internet is overdue and badly needed," referring to the ease with which pedophiles exploit children.

He also recommended that Western armed forces, when deployed overseas, be trained to recognize human trafficking.

Scalabrinian Father Márcio Toniazzo, director of the Scalabrini International Migration Network, said simply listening to migrants may at first appear trivial, but it's a key way of identifying those most likely to be threatened with trafficking in the future.

Traffickers prey on women with "false promises of jobs and marriage," he said. "It is not necessary to criminalize people looking for a better life."

"The Catholic Church is increasingly on the front line of what Pope Francis called (in 2022) 'an open wound in the body of Christ,'" said Mercy Sister Deidre Mullan, a member of the board of trustees of the London-based Arise Foundation.

Sister Deirdre called for "education and employment and community mobilization" to help vulnerable populations resist the false lures of traffickers.

Abby Wilhelm, a policy adviser for the global law firm Hogan Lovells, said the end of human trafficking requires "disrupting the business" with "confiscation of profits."

It also, she said, "requires law enforcement to engage in systematic prosecution of traffickers" while restoring a sense of dignity in victims. Prosecution also requires the cooperation of the victims, who have "to be able to engage in the criminal justice process."

"It is possible to get reparations from an international court" using laws against organized crime and money-laundering, Wilhelm said, "but it takes patience and persistence."

- - - Kurt Jensen reports for OSV News from Washington.