LONDON — Although British politician William Wilberforce led the charge against the trans-Atlantic slavery trade, culminating in the passage of the Slave Trade Abolition Bill in 1807, the problem has far from gone away.
The most recent estimates suggest there are between 10,000 and 13,000 modern-slavery victims in the United Kingdom and more than 45 million across the world. The figure includes victims of human trafficking and those held in slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labor.
The urgency of the problem has recently spurred British Prime Minister Theresa May to pledge a range of measures and investment to bring an end to modern-day slavery.
The moves, announced in The Sunday Telegraph at the end of July, have been warmly welcomed by leading figures in the Catholic Church who play a key role in the fight.
Included in the measures are the establishment of a high-level taskforce; an independent review of how the U.K.’s Modern Slavery Act is being implemented, which will include training for members of the criminal-justice system and police forces; greater collaboration with counterparts in other countries; and £33.5 million ($43.6 million) to create a modern-slavery fund to lead the way on the global stage.
Commenting on the announcement, Bishop Patrick Lynch, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in England and Wales on issues regarding human trafficking and human slavery, told the Register he endorsed the measures around this important issue.
“Having worked closely with anti-trafficking charities and police forces in the U.K. and around the world, I warmly welcome this move by the prime minister,” he said. “The problem of human trafficking and modern slavery is huge — it’s a major issue — and we need to keep doing more to identify the vulnerable communities and victims.”
Bishop Lynch, who is an auxiliary in the Archdiocese of Southwark and sits on the bishops’ conference’s international affairs committee, said that faith groups, including Catholics and the Salvation Army, were already playing an important role, and he hopes the Catholic Church will have a voice on the new task force.
He added, “The announcement of additional financial investment is to be particularly welcomed and will do a great deal to support those working to end modern slavery at home and abroad.”
In her article, May promised a “radically new, comprehensive approach to defeating this vile and systematic international business model at its source and in transit.”
In 2015, the U.K. passed the Modern Slavery Act, making it the first country in Europe to pass such legislation. The U.K. government was also the first in the world to create the role of anti-slavery commissioner, currently held by Kevin Hyland, who is Catholic.
The same year, a total of 289 modern-slavery offenses were prosecuted, together with a 40% rise in the number of victims identified.
In a February 2015 interview, Hyland discussed the lead role Pope Francis took along with other religious leaders, by signing a December 2014 statement advocating the engagement of religion in combating modern slavery and human trafficking.
“Having all these ways of accessing different communities is so important, and to have a global leader, as we’ve got in Pope Francis, is particularly important,” Hyland told Civil Service World magazine. “The way he has taken this as something that he is going to lead on really fits well with the plan for the U.K. to lead on this globally.”
Complex International Problem
According to the latest National Crime Agency report, potential victims of trafficking were reported from 88 nationalities. The top 10 countries are Albania, Vietnam, China, Nigeria, Romania, U.K., Poland, Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan. Thirty-two percent of victims were categorized as minors.
Commenting on the figures, Carole Murphy, from the Center for the Study of Modern Slavery at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham, told the Register it is very difficult to ascertain the full scope of the problem.
“Human trafficking and modern slavery are so often hidden that the number of victims and gangs doing the trafficking is probably much higher,” she explained.
The types of exploitations are listed as either sexual, domestic or labor. These can include manual labor, prostitution, pick-pocketing and housework in private homes.
Murphy, who specializes in issues around human trafficking, said there were some alarming trends among those trafficked. “Our meetings with the anti-slavery commissioner have revealed that Nigeria, Vietnam and Albania are three of the counties identified that have a particular problem.
“It seems to be that cases of human trafficking are increasing and methods of moving victims becoming more sophisticated,” she said.
The center, which was launched last year, is a part of a wider anti-slavery strategy by the Catholic Church in the U.K.; it is tasked with providing academic research to impact policy and improve care of victims.
Murphy also told the Register that the center was in discussions with the London Metropolitan Police and the U.K. government’s Home Office, proposing research to examine the possibilities of sharing best practices in interviewing vulnerable victims of trafficking who are also seeking asylum.
Another key part of the Church’s strategy is the work of the international Santa Marta Group, established in April 2014 at the Vatican. It facilitates intelligence and best-practice sharing between Church leaders and police forces across the world.
As well as research and collaboration with law enforcement, the Archdiocese of Westminster, London, founded Bakhita House. Set up last year, it acts as a safe house for trafficked women. Thanks to the support of staff, volunteers, religious orders of sisters and professional partners, it is able to provide trafficked women with psychological, legal and pastoral care.
Since 2015, the Feb. 8 feast day of former slave St. Josephine Bakhita is recognized by Catholics around the world as the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking.
Charlotte Kirkwood, development manager and deputy chief executive officer of The Medaille Trust, told the Register the trust is pleased by the prime minister’s continued interest and involvement in human trafficking, adding that the task force was the correct direction in which to go.
The trust, set up by Sister Ann Therese of the Order of St. Joseph of Annecy in 2006, was a response to Pope Benedict XVI’s call to take seriously the need to tackle modern slavery. It is now the largest supplier of victim-support services in the U.K., providing 80 beds in nine houses.
“The £33.5m for ‘upstream’ work is cautiously welcomed. The welcome remains cautious until we see the detail of how it will be spent, and the welcome is tempered by our desire to see a similar investment in work in the U.K.,” Kirkwood said.
“There is much to be done here, in terms of training and victim support that needs funding. The current structure only allows each victim a 45-day support period.”
The trust also works closely with police forces across the country, providing intelligence, holding an annual conference in Slovenia with representatives from U.K. and European police forces, and employs a full-time police liaison officer.
‘A Key Role’
“The Catholic Church could have a key role, indeed the key role, both in the U.K. and worldwide,” said Kirkwood.
Her call came just as Pope Francis announced the creation of a new Vatican “superdicastery,” merging the Pontifical Councils of Justice and Peace, Cor Unum, Health Care Workers, and Migrants and Itinerant Peoples.
“Promoting Integral Human Development,” as it will be known, will have a substantial portfolio of responsibilities, including migrants, the imprisoned and the unemployed, victims of armed conflict and all forms of slavery and torture.
“The Church needs to act in a single, united way that brings together clergy, laity and religious in one unified organization to fight trafficking,” Kirkwood said. “At present, there is too much competition and duplication amongst a variety of Catholic agencies and interests. The same is needed at the European and international level, until we have built a single, powerful and effective organization.”
“The Holy Father’s intervention has been most helpful of late, although, for many, the fight began long before he arrived. He now needs to authorize the creation of a single pontifical foundation, working worldwide to provide an effective, coordinated response.”
Register correspondent Daniel Blackman writes from London.