January 22, 2020, Adrian, Michigan – Human trafficking – slavery – has been in existence for thousands of years, and the modern version of this insidious, evil practice must be recognized and prevented.
That was the core message Sisters Marilyn Winter, OP, and Patricia McDonald, OP, brought to an assembly of Adrian Dominican Sisters January 16, 2020, during Human Trafficking Awareness Month. The month begins on January 11, 2020, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, and concludes on February 8, 2020, the Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of human trafficking victims.
Both Sister Marilyn and Sister Patricia are involved in the Lenawee County Regional Anti-Trafficking Task Force, one of 130 member organizations of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.
Human trafficking is “a crime against humanity, pure and simple,” Sister Patricia said. “It’s a matter of misuse of power and control. … We’re dealing with a sick society at a lot of levels. The more we know the more we can help people grow in their understanding."
Sisters Marilyn and Patricia spent much their presentation reminding the Sisters of the widespread practice of modern-day slavery, its insidiousness, and its impact on victims and on our society.
Sister Marilyn noted the work that the Catholic Church has done to prevent and end human trafficking. For example, the Vatican hosted an international meeting of law enforcement officers working to end the practice, as well as similar meetings in April 2019 and September 2019.
“One of the first principles of Catholic social teaching has to do with human dignity,” with the rights of all human beings to respect and dignity, Sister Marilyn said. “That’s the very basis for what we do in human trafficking work.” She cited the 2007 statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration: “Human trafficking is a horrific crime against the basic dignity and rights of the human person. All efforts must be expended to end it.”
An estimated 40 million people worldwide are entrapped in sex trafficking and in forced labor in restaurants, agricultural sites, sweatshops, domestic servitude in homes or hotels, construction, and nail salons, while another 15 million are trafficked into forced marriages, Sister Marilyn said. Human trafficking also involves the removal of internal organs from a victim, she added.
Sister Patricia noted that people are not always trafficked as a result of kidnapping or other forms of violence. “There are many ways to entrap people,” she said. Human trafficking involves any process in which the trafficker gains control of another: recruitment, transportation, coercion, fraud, deception, and the abuse of power, she explained.
To illustrate various ways that people can be trafficked, Sister Patricia cited several case studies: Irene, who came to the United States as the employee of a company that supplies housekeepers and whose living expenses were deducted from her $1 per hour wages; Eddy, who came from another country and, with his father, was forced to work on a blueberry farm under dangerous conditions with little rest or food; and Allison, a 12-year-old girl in foster care who befriended an older man. He invited her to live with him and forced her into prostitution to pay back what he had spent on her.
Often, Sister Patricia said, trafficked people don’t understand that they’re victims with rights. They might remain in their slavery because they’re “afraid of being imprisoned or deported, fearful of putting family in danger, and mistrustful of authorities” – police officers who can free them. “They could be physically isolated or guarded by traffickers.”
While anybody can be the victim of human trafficking, Sister Marilyn noted, they tend to be vulnerable people who are dealing with poverty, homelessness, disabilities, abuse in their family, foster care, or neglect. Many vulnerable people are groomed – treated kindly by a stranger or acquaintance and lured into slavery, she said.
Both presenters noted the hidden nature of human trafficking and pointed to signs that a person could be trafficked. “We don’t want to ignore the signs,” Sister Patricia said. These include the inability to leave the worksite, limited contact with family and friends, the tendency to avoid eye contact, and unexplained injuries, she said. Sister Marilyn said that medical professionals might especially notice if another person repeatedly answers questions aimed at the patient – a possible sign that the patient is being trafficked.
Sisters Marilyn and Patricia also outlined steps that the general public can take to prevent human trafficking:
“I think we have to focus on prevention,” Sister Marilyn said. She recommended creating a culture that respects each human being and recognizes the value of each human life. As a nation, we can prevent human trafficking “by the way we raise children in the family to care for one another to keep them from bullying or pornography,” Sister Marilyn said. “It would help in the future to let people know as adults that they can’t control others.”
Feature photo (top): Sister Marilyn Winter, OP, speaks on the Catholic Church’s teaching on human trafficking.
Sisters attending the talk pray for an end to human trafficking. In the front row are, from left, Sisters Joan Baustian, OP, Angela Susalla, OP, and Marie Luisa Vasquez, OP.