SLAVERY and human trafficking are crimes against humanity, Pope Francis has told a conference at the Vatican.
Speaking to judges and prosecutors from around the world at the Judges’ Summit on Human Trafficking and Organized Crime last Friday, the Pope said that forced labour, prostitution, organ trafficking, and other modern forms of slavery must be seen by all religious and political leaders as “real crimes against humanity”.
There was a genuine willingness and urgency to “pursue the eradication of new forms of slavery” within the Vatican, Pope Francis said. He urged the audience to return to their home nations to raise awareness of slavery, use their powers to rescue slaves, and prosecute slavemasters.
To achieve this, they must be careful to hold on to their freedom from governments and organised crime. “Without this freedom, a nation’s judiciary is corrupted and corrupting,” the Pope warned.
At the conclusion of the summit, he signed a declaration that described modern slavery as a crime against humanity which should be punished as such.
The declaration, which was also signed by the judges and prosecutors who attended the conference, calls for more funding for international co-operation in the fight against slavery, more support, such as temporary-residence permits, for victims, and more prosecutions of the traffickers and those who bought women for sex.
Pope Francis has made combating slavery a priority of his pontificate. Two years ago he worked with the Church of England to set up the Global Freedom Network (News, 21 March 2014). The Vatican has also hosted summits for city mayors and religious leaders to garner their backing to end slavery by 2020.
The UK Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, told the conference that the profile of trafficking victims in Britain was changing. Until recently, most victims had been women forced into prostitution, but now more men were being trafficked into forced labour.
A report released last week estimated that the number of slaves around the world had gone up to 45.8 million, and that 11,700 were in the UK (News, 3 June).
This was an area where the Church should do more politics, not less, the Pope said. “There is the saying that the Church should not meddle in politics, but the Church must get involved in greater politics, because — and I quote Paul VI — politics is one of the highest forms of charity.”
The battle to free the world’s slaves was a “complex and delicate human and Christian project”. “Following Christ, the Church is called to engage and to be faithful to people, even more in the case of situations where open wounds and dramatic suffering are present.”
The Church was fortunate to have allies in this fight at the UN, he said, and the unanimous ratification of the new Sustainable Development Goals (News, 28 September) — which include the target of eradicating slavery and trafficking — meant that every country had the “moral imperative” of joining the crusade.
A European Commission report published last week suggested that the UK was one of the countries most targeted by traffickers because of the demand for low-cost labour.
Mission Without Borders, a charity that works in Eastern Europe, said that it was seeing children, especially those inside institutions or of Roma heritage, being trafficked constantly.