WASHINGTON — The global scourge of modern slavery known as human trafficking, including for labor and sex, has received its annual report card from the U.S. State Department. But the Catholic Church is actively engaged in finding new and creative ways to save and prevent more victims both at home and abroad.

The 2014 "Trafficking in Persons" (TIP) report released on June 20 was well-received by the Catholic legislative author of the anti-trafficking legislation that sets the report’s standards for the elimination of trafficking.

“Much of the report is good,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. “Many of the countries that are on Tier 3 [the lowest ranking] are where they ought to be, including Thailand and Malaysia.”

Thailand, Malaysia and Venezuela were downgraded on the State Department’s report to rank among the worst countries, which are not making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards of Smith’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act. However, Smith said one area of the report that severely disappointed him was China, which was upgraded to the Tier 2 watch list for reasons he believes have to do primarily with China’s economic relationship with the United States.

“We had an opportunity to call it the way it is: Tier 3, egregious violator — and impose sanctions,” Smith added. “But they upgraded it and gave it a false report card.”

“China has continued to do things around the edges for public-relations purposes, but when you get down to it, the one-child per couple policy — and the systematic extermination of the girl child in the womb, as they have done for more than 30 years — is making a magnet for trafficking that takes herculean efforts to mitigate or end. And they’re not doing it.”

The massive gender imbalances of 118 boys to 100 girls at birth — far beyond the global sex ratio of 105 boys to 100 girls  — has led China’s government to estimate that, by 2020, more than 30 million males will be unable to find a spouse. Smith said the absence of more than 100 million missing girls due to China’s coercive population control is creating a severe trafficking situation.

“Women are being moved inter-country, where bride-sellers and [sex] traffickers are able to move women from one province to another,” he said. “But, particularly in adjacent countries and those in proximity to China, there’s been a huge increase in trafficking and bringing women into China, and that includes Burma, Mongolia, Cambodia, Laos and North Korea.”

Smith said he is seeking to strengthen the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s penalties on offending countries. He wants to see the waiver period reduced to one year, down from four years, when countries like China get an automatic downgrade to Tier 3 for failing to make progress.

“So it cuts this waiver ability that the president has significantly, because, so often, when it comes to the White House, but this president especially, when it comes to human rights, the waivers fly like cotton candy … and we never get to the point where many countries are sanctioned.”

But the government cannot fight human trafficking alone, and Smith said the efforts of civil society, particularly churches, are crucial to uprooting human trafficking from global society.

“The need for shelters, faith-based shelters, is a big need globally, and prevention is a close second, where schools and the pulpit could be used to admonish everyone to be careful” about the reality of trafficking, Smith said. “But the biggest need of all is shelters.”


The Church’s Fight

Pope Francis has pointedly called upon the members of the Church to take action to fight human trafficking. The U.S. State Department’s report also noted Pope Francis’ efforts in raising the profile of the issue, stating, “The pontiff’s position on modern slavery is clear: When any man, woman or child is enslaved anywhere, it is a threat to peace, justice and human dignity everywhere.”

“What the Holy See has done, with Pope Francis’ specific and very direct attention, is highlight the issue,” Ken Hackett, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, told Vatican Radio earlier in July. Hackett said the efforts have highlighted the issue of trafficking for the Church worldwide, “and it gives courage to those who have been trying to work [against trafficking], and it gives just an additional push to the effort to eliminate this scourge.”

Overseas, Catholic Relief Services, the international relief agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), has made anti-human-trafficking programs a key part of its relief and development efforts.

“We have some great anti-trafficking work going on in India,” said Jennifer Hardy, CRS’ regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim.

“It really is a holistic program that looks at: How do we help people out of a vulnerable situation [after they have been trafficked]? But also: How do we prevent it from happening in the first place?” she said.

Hardy said CRS works with a partner called Prerana to reach out to trafficked women in the red-light district of Mumbai, India, giving them options out of the sex trade, helping support their children and looking for people held against their will.

“There’s an awesome home for girls who have either been trafficked or are in a very vulnerable situation at risk of entering the sex industry under some kind of coercion,” she said. “The girls are able to go there, finish their education and get job-skill training.”

Hardy said CRS was also focused on programs in rural parts of India that both raise awareness about the dangers of trafficking and how women can avoid exploitation if they have to migrate to cities for employment. But she said that providing economic opportunity for them in their own communities is a key preventive measure.

The latest big CRS development project in Bihar, India, she said, involves finding the best variety of seeds that can endure severe drought and severe rainfall faced by farmers and increase their yields and create sustainable income.

“When people have economic options in their hometowns and home provinces, they are at less of a risk for being exploited,” she said.


U.S. Efforts

At home, the USCCB has been reinventing its methods and approach to human trafficking, ever since the Department of Health and Human Services decided against renewing an anti-trafficking contract with the Office of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS), in a 2011 decision that appeared to be linked to the Church’s teachings on abortion, contraception and sterilization.

Today, MRS is focused primarily on two grassroots programs: the "Amistad Movement" and the "Become a Shepherd" program to raise awareness and combat human and sex trafficking in the United States. According to the USCCB, an estimated 17,000 vulnerable men, women and children are trafficked into sex and labor slavery.

“At the MRS office, we’re really trying to keep increasing the amount of resources that we have for immigrant communities with the Amistad Movement,” said Hilary Chester, associate director of the MRS Anti-Trafficking Program. A key part of the program is subsidiarity: training leaders in these communities who can oversee the training of other educators and provide them with culturally targeted education materials about trafficking.

“We’re really trying to get the word out to immigrant communities,” Chester said, “and educate people to educate each other, with peer education around the risks, how to respond, how to help people get out of trafficked situations, [and] how to avoid being exploited.”

She said her office has received many calls from people inspired by Pope Francis about how they can get their parishes and dioceses involved in the fight against human trafficking. She said the Become a Shepherd program, which provides a tool kit for Catholics to become anti-trafficking leaders and educate their parishes about human trafficking, how to identify and report trafficking situations and how to make ethical consumer and employer choices to reduce the demand for trafficking.

“We want to build up more resources, tools and tangible activity ideas so the everyday Catholic can get involved,” Chester said.


Model Parish

Chester pointed to St. Francis of Assisi Church in Triangle, Va. — a town that straddles the Washington-northern Virginia metropolitan area and rural Virginia — as a “spectacular” model for how parishes that join the Shepherd program can make a profound difference in the fight against human trafficking within their own communities.

Rob Goraeib, the church’s coordinator of Franciscan action and advocacy, said their Franciscan pastors have really inspired the laity to take the lead in the trafficking fight. He said they have 20 members on their human-trafficking committee, with a variety of experience and expertise, who also lead their own different subcommittees.

“We have everyone from high-school students to retirees [on these committees],” he said. “People who are working and engaged with government, law enforcements, nonprofits — people who have been social workers, teachers, you name it. So you have that kind of expertise in the room.”

The parish is part of local task forces, supporting advocacy, action and awareness efforts. They’ve brought in speakers to discuss how to identify red flags and the impact of personal economic choices on trafficking in the global supply chain. Some people in the parish are working with state and federal elected leaders to fill the gaps in the law, and others are training to work with trafficked victims at the local sexual-assault crisis center.

“You can do a lot, is what I would say to many parishes,” Goraeib said. “Even Protestant churches have contacted us about how to get this going.”

He said they did their homework on the reality of trafficking in their region, including going through police reports, and prepared the parish to really get involved through sustained education.

But they have also discovered that the efforts have helped make Catholics in the parish more serious about living their faith and have also attracted non-Catholics to join the parish and discover the Catholic faith.

“Our mandate truly comes from Catholic social teaching, the Scriptures and being disciples of Christ,” Goraieb said, explaining that it permeates their anti-human-trafficking efforts. “So that we’re not just acting against this injustice, but that we have all the more reason for doing this — the dignity of the human person.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.