Pope Francis leads the Palm Sunday mass at Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican April 13, 2014. Photo by Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters
MANILA, Philippines - Describing human trafficking as “an open wound on the body of contemporary society [and] a scourge upon the body of Christ,” Pope Francis last week said a conference held in the Vatican was a cry that the church and the people have had “enough” of the problem that afflicts many nations.
“It is a crime against humanity,” he said at the conclusion of the ’Second International Conference on Combating Human Trafficking: Church and Law Enforcement in Partnership.’
The pope exhorted the international community to “adopt an even more unanimous and effective strategy against human trafficking, so that in every part of the world, men and women may no longer be used as a means to an end, and that their inviolable dignity may always be respected.”
Trafficking of children, women and men for labor and sexual exploitation has continued to be a major problem in many countries across the globe, according to the United Nations and international civil society organizations seeking an end to the dastardly practice.
In the Philippines, criminal groups, often with the connivance of crooked officials, are suspected to be involved in human trafficking through illegal recruitment operations.
The Philippines, says the Asian Regional Initiative Against Trafficking (ARIAT), is a source for men, women, and children who are subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. To a much lesser extent, the Philippines is also cited as a destination and transit country for exploited individuals.
In an assessment of the trafficking problem in the Philippines on its website HumanTrafficking.org, ARIAT says traffickers use local recruiters sent to villages and urban neighborhoods to recruit family and friends, “often masquerading as representatives of government-registered employment agencies.”
“These fraudulent recruitment practices and the institutionalized practice of paying recruitment fees often leave workers vulnerable to forced labor, debt bondage, and commercial sexual exploitation. There were reports in 2010 that illicit recruiters increased their use of student, intern, and exchange program visas to circumvent the Philippine government and receiving countries’ regulatory frameworks for foreign workers,” the ARIAT website says, quoting a report by the US Department of State.
Of the more than 10 million Filipinos now living abroad where they find jobs that in the Philippines remain scarce, a “significant number” are said to be “subjected to conditions of forced labor” in factories, at construction sites, on fishing vessels, on agricultural plantations, and as domestic workers in Asia and throughout the Middle East.
“Skilled Filipino migrant workers, such as engineers and nurses, have also been subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude. Women were trafficked into the commercial sex industry in countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan and in various Middle Eastern countries,” said the US state department report prepared in 2011.
It is therefore not difficult to see the timeliness and the value of Pope Francis’ public statement last week at the conference that also included law enforcement authorities who the pope said are “primarily responsible for combating this tragic reality by a vigorous application of the law.”
At the same time, the pope said the humanitarian and social workers at the meeting are also tasked to “provide victims with welcome, human warmth and the possibility of building a new life.”
“These are two different approaches, but they can and must go together. To dialogue and exchange views on the basis of these two complementary approaches is important,” said Pope Francis.
“I exhort the international community to adopt an even more unanimous and effective strategy against human trafficking, so that in every part of the world, men and women may no longer be used as a means to an end, and that their inviolable dignity may always be respected,” the pope said.
Filipino children, women and men become vulnerable to trafficking largely because of the pervasive poverty in the country and the conflict in some areas of the southern Philippines that drive them to seek better opportunities overseas.
Also cited by analysts at the US state department as increasing people’s vulnerability to trafficking is the presence of a large informal economy, estimated to be between 40 and 80 percent of the number of Filipino workers, “who are for the most part not registered or recorded in the official statistics and are beyond the reach of social protection and labor legislation.”
Exacerbating these are other factors such as crime networks that prey on persons looking for jobs and the complicity of law enforcement officers, as well as “corruption at all levels of government that enables traffickers to prosper.”
The Philippine government has committed itself to attacking the trafficking conundrum. But apparently more needs to be done. The papal exhortation should now be translated into decisive action by officials at all levels in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The Lenten season should be a good time to reflect on how to attack this “scourge upon the body of Christ.”
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