Anti-slavery groups uneasy about displaying faith, says report

14 February 2020

Jeremy Abrahams

The cover image of the report.

The cover image of the report.

MOST faith-based organisations (FBOs) that tackle modern slavery in the UK are Christian, but many show “evident discomfort” about being public about their faith identity.

These were among the findings of a report, Faith Responses to Modern Slavery, published last month as part of a three-year research project led by the universities of Sheffield and Leeds.

The report is based on case studies of six organisations (faith-based and secular), including the Salvation Army, which support people who are identified as “victims” of modern slavery. People who have suffered severe exploitation, support workers, representatives of third-sector anti-slavery organisations, and civil servants are among those interviewed.

Researchers also analysed Hansard, and public information on the 115 UK-based organisations involved in anti-slavery work. About one third (33) of these organisations were faith-based, and most of these (32) were Christian. Of the organisations focused solely on modern slavery, almost half (48 per cent) were faith-based.

“There is no one Christian response to modern slavery,” the report states. “Different FBOs incorporate or exclude their religious underpinnings, ethos or identity in a range of ways in their everyday operations, mission and values.”

This might simply be that the founders are motivated by faith, or that the organisation has links with churches, include prayer in a working day, or hire staff with a religious identity.

The faith aspect of these organisations did not compromise the “quality or appropriateness of provision of support for people of other faiths or none”, the report says. “Most practitioners in FBOs we spoke to emphasised how their religious ethos provided a framework for unconditional and non-judgemental support as central to Christian praxis.”

One of those interviewed said: “Our staff work overtime unpaid, and they go out of their way. They do it because they love it, and I think that’s unique.”

The report also states, however, that “the risk of being tarnished by accusations of blurring the line between providing support and promoting religion meant that proselytism and evangelism were treated almost as a taboo topic in the research.”

In some faith-based organisations, for example, explicitly religious language was absent in campaigns and engagement. Phrases such as “have a heart” were used instead. “This language occasionally skirted close to terminology and concepts of religious conversion, in descriptions of people while in a situation of modern slavery as ‘broken’, requiring repair or restoration (with the organisation or practitioner situated as the saviour).”

The report says: “There was an evident discomfort among FBOs about being public about their faith identity. Hence, sometimes FBOs and faith actors appear as, and operate as, secular organisations in certain spaces.”

This may have been out of fear of harming opportunities for public funding, or to safeguard individuals from feeling pressured or judged.

Faith and spirituality can play a part in pastoral support, the report concludes, but “strict safeguarding is needed to prevent unduly influencing people or importuning people around religion.” This sensitivity was particularly important for one Roman Catholic survivor, whose traffickers had forced him to attend an Evangelical church.

Most of the 14 survivors of modern slavery who were interviewed for the research were women (11), eastern European (seven), and Christian (11). Ten of those questioned said that faith was an important part of their recovery. One said: “I believe in Jesus and God, not people.”

The report states: “Each narrative conveyed the need for timely immigration and modern slavery decisions, which minimise further or compound the harm and distress already endured. Where religious practice and worship was important to participants, they felt confident to seek this out and wanted to engage with their religion on their own terms.”

The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, said that the report showed the “significant and valuable contribution” of faith-based organisations to modern slavery, and “goes a long way to reassure that, in most instances, religion is not being promoted to the people being supported as victims, and that many faith-based organisations have very strong positions on non-proselytisation”.

The authors recommend that support organisations help survivors to make their own decisions, avoid dependency, and provide the tools and resources to establish a livelihood. All support workers should refer to the Human Trafficking Foundation’s Trafficking and Modern Slavery Survivor Care Standard on Freedom of Belief, Religion and Thought.

One of the authors, Dr Hannah Lewis, a senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield, said: “We found little evidence that faith-based organisations are promoting religion to survivors of modern slavery. However, the fear of evangelising damages trust and partnership work in the anti-modern slavery sector.”

www.sheffield.ac.uk

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