(OSV News) — Ending human trafficking requires collective action in addressing the conditions that cause it, said a U.S. bishop.
“It is incumbent upon all of us to unite in promoting efforts that prevent the evil of human trafficking,” said Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, in a statement released Feb. 1.
On Feb. 8, the Catholic Church will mark the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking. The observance coincides with the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, who was born into slavery in 19th-century Sudan and eventually gained her freedom in Italy, where she became a Canossian sister. Since her canonization by St. John Paul II in 2000, she has become the patron saint of human trafficking survivors.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will collaborate with The Catholic University of America in celebrating a Feb. 8 Mass for the occasion, as well as an ecumenical prayer service as a panel discussion on the issue. Details about the event can be found on the website of Justice for Immigrants, a network of Catholic organizations and institutions spearheaded by the U.S. bishops to advocate for immigration reform.
The USCCB Committee on Migration also has supported legislation and policies to protect victims and prevent trafficking, and has urged Congress to pass the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2023. Named for the internationally renowned U.S. abolitionist who himself had escaped slavery, the act would allocate $241 million annually from 2024-2028 for domestic and international anti-trafficking measures and victim support.
“We … recognize the important role of governments in addressing the conditions that lead to trafficking, and we remain committed to working with our own government and fellow members of civil society to develop and implement anti-trafficking efforts,” said Bishop Seitz in his statement.
In 2021 alone, some 50 million individuals worldwide were in a form of modern slavery, according to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization.
The two most common types of human trafficking are forced labor (including sex trafficking) and forced marriage.
In 2021, the Washington-based nonprofit Polaris, which operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, received more than 10,350 reports involving over 16,550 individual victims — numbers representing “likely only a fraction of the actual problem,” according to the organization’s website.
During fiscal year 2022, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security opened 1,373 human trafficking investigations, an increase of more than 260 cases over the previous fiscal year.
The State Department’s 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report highlighted three key trends in trafficking: an increase in forced labor, a rise in the use of online scams to target victims and growing numbers of boys and men among those trafficked.
Traffickers typically prey on individuals made vulnerable by economic distress, forced migration, domestic instability or a history of being sexually or physically abused. U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement notes the “complex nature” of trafficking, with perpetrators operating under the radar and victims, who often blame themselves, rarely reporting their enslavement. Some victims are mistakenly identified as criminals or undocumented migrants, the agency also said.
In a video message for last year’s day of prayer and awareness on the issue, Pope Francis said the “shameful scourge” of human trafficking “disfigures dignity.”
“It is incumbent upon all of us to unite in promoting efforts that prevent the evil of human trafficking,” said Bishop Seitz in his statement. “I join our Holy Father in inviting the faithful and all people of good will to uphold and affirm human dignity and grow in solidarity with those who are vulnerable to exploitation and have been impacted by this terrible evil of modern-day slavery. Inspired by St. Josephine’s life, may we accompany them in the pursuit of justice.”