Senior law enforcement officers, bishops, and religious women from over 30 countries, as well as representatives from key international organisations met together for the fifth Santa Marta Group conference on 8th and 9th February in the Vatican to update and share best practice in the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery.
Cardinal Vincent, who is Santa Marta Group President, explained: ‘Slavery continues to affect the most vulnerable in our communities and the latest UN figures suggests over forty million people are now potential victims. This year’s conference hopes to build on the hard work produced by SMG partners since the group was established in 2014.The conference is an opportunity for law enforcement and the Church to share evidence of practical cooperation and effective responses driven by the importance of supporting survivors of human trafficking.
‘Slavery is an affront to human dignity and we all have a responsibility to fight against it. This conference is a unique opportunity to strengthen our global response as we move to specific and accountable actions.’
This year’s conference focused on regional realities with tailored solutions to human trafficking in each continent. With input from every continent, each region discussed their experiences, both the successes and challenges they face, with growing collaboration identified as a priority in neighbouring countries where the challenges are similar.
Education and economic opportunity were identified as priorities for the home countries of trafficked people. The need for a strong legal framework, accountability and active citizenship were identified as priorities for countries of destination. While there are significant similarities in approaches to combating human trafficking across regions, the need for local action was emphasised, recognising the significant levels of internal trafficking taking place.
This year the conference coincided with the feast day of St Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of human trafficking and who herself was a survivor of slavery. Cardinal Pietro Parolin celebrated the feast with a Mass in St Peter’s Basilica.
The conference ended with a Papal Audience on Friday. In an address to the Holy Father, Cardinal Vincent explained that the conference 'has been a hard look at one of the dark faces of globalisation: the scourge of human trafficking and modern slavery'. In contrast, he said that Pope Francis reminds us that 'that the well-being of the human person must always be at the centre of every endeavour'. He thanked the Holy Father for his 'leadership and encouragement in the fight against human trafficking'.
Cardinal Vincent presented the Pope with the report detailing the findings of the Evening Standard and Independent round table, chaired by the Cardinal, which undertook a three-month investigation into modern slavery in the UK, an example of collaboration with the media to raise public awareness.
In an interview with Vatican News, Cardinal Vincent explained that, while a recent survey found that six out of 10 people were aware of the problem in the UK, most of these did not believe that slavery was a problem that affects them. He said that the best way to raise awareness is 'to keep our eyes on the face of the victim'. It is only 'when we see and hear a story that we begin to think that this is a person that is being held in this way'.
He also called upon local police authorities 'to step up their focus on human trafficking' but not to use this against the victims, but 'to use this information to track down the human traffickers'.
He said that human trafficking is a 'hugely profitable business and, to break it, the profit has to be taken out of it' both at the very local level and through financial institutions and businesses.
He saw hope in the number of young people who are now beginning to tell their parents that they do not wish to go to a particular shop where the products might have been made by enslaved labour.
To listen to the full interview with Philippa Hitchen of Vatican News:
(or listen to the interview on the Vatican News site.)
Launched in 2014 by Pope Francis and led by Cardinal Vincent the Santa Marta Group is a unique global partnership between law enforcement and the Catholic Church. Since 2014 the group has grown to become a worldwide network covering 35 countries.
Photo: Cardinal Vincent with Julie Etchingham of ITV News at the Santa Marta Conference in the Vatican (Mazur/Catholicnews.org.uk)