Sister Eugenia Bonetti on Human Trafficking Victims: Nobody Does This By Choice
The head of the Rome-based ‘Slaves No More’ association discusses her organization’s efforts, inspired by Christ, to help women and girls who are sexually exploited through national and international trafficking.
ROME — Coronavirus lockdowns have not led to a reduction in human trafficking, which primarily affects women and girls, but actually increased it over the past year, according to Consolata Sister Eugenia Bonetti.
“The different types of exploitation have changed, becoming more violent and, in the case of sexual exploitation, more hidden,” she says. “They have moved, in fact, from the streets to apartments or online sites.”
For over two decades, Sister Eugenia has served on the frontline of the Church’s efforts to combat human trafficking of women and girls — a ministry that began in 1993 when, as a missionary in Africa, she first saw women on roadsides waiting for clients.
Since 2012, the Italian sister has headed “Slaves No More,” a Rome-based association extending to 30 different countries and dedicated to fighting the scourge, which affects 27 million victims worldwide. The organization has collaborated extensively with the U.S. embassy to the Holy See during both Republican and Democratic administrations.
In this March 30 interview with the Register, Sister Eugenia explains more about her work to restore the dignity of trafficked women and girls, what the faithful can do to raise awareness of these acts of violence, degradation and exploitation against them, and how her conviction that we are one human family under Christ is central to her work.
Sister Eugenia, who are most liable to become victims of such modern slavery? How do they end up in this situation, and do they include minors?
The categories of people most at risk of becoming victims of human trafficking are undoubtedly women and young women and children.
There are many ways in which these people become victims of trafficking. First of all, most of the time they are completely unaware that their migratory journey can begin, continue and end in various forms of slavery. Poverty plays a key role, as the areas where trafficking begins are poor and there are few opportunities to live a dignified life. War, pollution, and corruption are other factors that increase human trafficking.
Returning to the ways in which people are deceived and enslaved we can mention, among others: voodoo rituals; blackmail, carried out by traffickers, against the families of victims; subjugating victims to exploiters due to large sums of money they must pay; the many, varied and constant acts of violence perpetrated by criminals on victims that result in them not having the strength to defend themselves or rebel. Often the girls who are trafficked are the last of very large families and are deceived by traffickers who promise them a job and welfare in Europe.
Women prostitutes many of African origin, roam Rome’s backstreets and country lanes. How many of them would you say are victims of human trafficking, and how many freely choose to be there?
Unfortunately, the many women who have been prostituting themselves on the streets of Rome for years are clearly visible to everyone's eyes because they are forced to do what they do on the city’s large, well-known and busy streets.
Women and girls, for the most part African, Nigerian and Eastern European, arrive via the Balkans. Most of them are victims of human trafficking and subsequent exploitation. If women on the streets could freely choose what to do, they certainly wouldn’t choose to be exposed, exploited, used and thrown back on the street, night after night, like objects. In the years of service in which I have been close to the many women and girls exploited on the streets, I have never met one who has said to me “I do this work by choice.”
Why does this problem appear to be particularly prevalent in Rome and what do the authorities do to try to stop it?
This is a widespread problem in and around all major Italian cities from north to south. The exploitation of prostitution responds to the laws of the market: if there is demand, there is also supply. The more the former increases, the more the latter specializes and follows trends. I would like to remind you that trafficking in persons at the international level is, together with arms and drugs trafficking, the most profitable form of traffic.
Since the 1990s much has been done at the legislative level. Both on an international level with the Palermo Protocol [a 2000 United Nations treaty to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children], and on a national level with Article 18 of the Consolidation Act on Immigration [1998 Italian legislation to provide protection for immigrant victims of violence].
Associations, ministries, law enforcement agencies and private individuals are trying to fight the phenomenon. However, much still needs to be done. These issues concern everyone, no one is excluded. Indifference, in fact, is a negative factor that has a great impact on the success of rescue and aid to victims. Also dangerous are racist and xenophobic trends that have afflicted Italy in recent years. Another very important consideration is to keep attention high and focused on this issue, to challenge policy and to have a continuous dialogue with ministries that deal with these issues, so that trafficking in human beings, and the multiple exploitations that result, are always on the political agenda.
What work does your organization “Slaves No More” do to help these and other victims of trafficking?
“Slaves no More” performs a bridging function. The association is based on the thinking that it’s fundamental to work in a network. Being all pieces of a mosaic, each one is crucial to ultimate success.
In Italy, the association carries out information activities, awareness campaigns, and meetings (in this particular period online) to try to create dialogue between the different subjects. We go to schools, we talk to groups of religious and lay people about these problems, which are still not very well addressed. In October 2020 we organized a seminar titled “Trafficking, Exploitation, Services, Covid-19: And Now?” Due to many requests, we published this seminar’s proceedings, and on March 19, we held a webinar entitled “Trafficking, Exploitation, Services: Now is the Time to Act!”
“Slaves no More,” thanks to a group of inter-congregational sisters, also offers outreach activities to women and young victims of trafficking and exploitation in the CPR of Ponte Galeria [a repatriation detention center near Rome].
Often in Italy we are contacted by various associations or shelters to help solve particular cases. Moreover, thanks to the funds allocated to us by the Italian Episcopal Conference, we are able to carry out an outreach project for possible victims of trafficking and social and work reintegration in Nigeria. This is thanks to four shelters run by the sisters in four different areas of Nigeria: Lagos, Benin City, Ijebu and Delta State. Thanks to the important work of these sisters, we’re able to help women and girls who would otherwise be trafficked or re-trafficked in Nigeria or in other African states, to help give them a future of dignity and lawfulness. Together with the Nigerian sisters, we also run awareness campaigns for civil society and schools.
What can the faithful and the Church as a whole do to help your work, and prevent human trafficking in their own towns and cities?
As I mentioned earlier, these issues must concern everyone, because we are all equally responsible. It is fundamental that each of us acts in a different way so as not to become accomplices to criminal groups.
The Church, parishes, youth groups, priests and religious, and families must discuss these issues, must establish a continuous dialogue to try to know the phenomenon and all its implications. All this helps to understand that attitudes, behaviors, services — which seem normal or every day — hide criminal activities that exploit human beings. We need to break down prejudices and feel part of one family.
Some think that due to lockdowns and a larger police presence, human trafficking of all kinds might have reduced during the COVID-19 crisis. What is the reality?
We don’t solve the problem by blocking migratory flows, the arrivals of migrants on the coasts or at the borders of our states. It is useless to build walls and barriers, not to cooperate with other states, and to implement repressive policies against foreigners who are often victims. This is demonstrated by data, not only Italian but international. According to the UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, human trafficking during the COVID-19 pandemic has not only not stopped but has actually increased. The different types of exploitation have changed, becoming more violent and, in the case of sexual exploitation, more hidden. They have moved, in fact, from the streets to apartments or online sites.
You’ve worked closely with the U.S. embassy to the Holy See in the past — what plans do you have to continue that collaboration under the new Biden administration?
For years I have had a close collaboration with the American embassy, but also with the U.K. embassy. These embassies have always shown constant sensitivity to the issues we deal with. They have helped and supported us.
With the pandemic and the blocking of many activities, the situation has become uncertain for us. The association has had to rethink new ways of collaboration and new ways of communicating with the outside world. I will certainly be pleased to know what program the American embassy under the Biden administration will put in place given the great sensitivity shown to these issues by President Biden and Vice President Harris.
How does your faith inspire you and help you in your work helping trafficked women and girls?
With the gift of faith, I rediscovered women as daughters of God. All human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and their dignity must not be violated. All people have the right to be respected, valued and loved as we do with our mothers, sisters, friends...
In creation, the Lord wanted us to be members of a single family, the human family, all children of God.