In May, Pope Francis urged Catholics to speak up for “those not able to make their cries of pain and oppression heard,” acknowledging the struggle many throughout the world face in securing a recognition of their inherent human dignity.
Too often in today’s world are those on the margins exploited and threatened, at times even by their own relatives or loved ones, and unable to raise their voices for their own behalf. Too often are immigrants and refugees, in the search for better opportunities for themselves and their families, lured by false promises and left trapped in a cycle of debt they will never resolve. Too often are men, women, and children forced into modern slavery, also known as human trafficking.
Human trafficking is the second fastest growing criminal industry in the world, a crime in which individuals are reduced to the value of their production. While human trafficking is commonly seen by the general public as an international, rather than domestic problem, this crime against human dignity happens in Michigan’s own neighborhoods. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 300,000 boys and girls around the country are at risk of sexual exploitation every year, and in the State of Michigan, some have estimated that dozens of girls under the age of eighteen are sold into sex slavery each month.
Sadly, the faces of human trafficking are many, including individuals of every race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and even income level, all over the globe. A trafficking victim could be the minor forced into prostitution or adult entertainment or the maid forced to work long hours without pay in a neighborhood household or business. In their efforts to exploit victims for profit, traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion, most commonly through sex or labor. A victim could be trafficked across country borders or trafficked streets over from his or her home. These individuals may be unwilling to speak in front of others, lack control over their finances or documents, work excessively long or unusual hours, or appear malnourished, among other signs.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been a leader in the national response to human trafficking and has developed a program to coordinate the response of the U.S. church. Additional legal efforts are needed, both at the federal and state level, to set and enforce laws that combat human trafficking. Currently, the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), enacted in 2000, and Michigan law on human trafficking, enacted in 2006 and enhanced in 2010, do provide support to victims and apprehend traffickers, but more work is needed to give victims their voice back and to protect against future crimes.
In September, a 19-bill package was introduced that would require training of first responders to identify human trafficking, improve services for victims, and enact harsher penalties against traffickers. This month, the Michigan Legislature is expected to consider these bills, aided by recommendations of the Attorney General’s Michigan Commission on Human Trafficking, to address the wide aspects of the “scourge of evil,” as Blessed John Paul II referred to human trafficking.
As an advocacy organization, Michigan Catholic Conference will continue to support legislation that raises awareness, addresses root causes of human trafficking, shows compassion towards victims, and apprehends and prosecutes traffickers.
The effort to combat human trafficking is an effort to promote and defend the dignity of every human person. Individuals and organizations have brought awareness to the issue, yet further education is needed about this crime and the role the people of Michigan can play in its prevention. Look for updates about human trafficking legislation by joining the Catholic Advocacy Network at www.micatholic.org/can/. Catholic voices are needed to speak up for the many victims who, like Pope Francis articulated, cannot address their suffering without assistance.
To learn more about human trafficking, check out the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Anti-Trafficking Program at http://www.usccb.org/about/anti-trafficking-program/. To report suspected cases of human trafficking, call the Human Trafficking National Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.