Pope’s New Year Call for Global Mobilization to Eliminate Modern Slavery

Pope Francis greets other faith leaders following a ceremony in observance of U.N. Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

“No Longer Slaves, But Brothers and Sisters.” That is the title of Pope Francis’s Message for the World Day of Peace that will be celebrated on Jan. 1, 2015, in which he describes modern slavery as “a global phenomenon” and calls for a worldwide mobilization “to eliminate it.”

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, presented the Message at a Vatican press conference on December 10. It is but the latest in a series of high-profile initiatives by Pope Francis over the past 21 months aimed at raising public awareness to “the many faces of slavery” in today’s world—from human trafficking and prostitution, to sale of organs and cross-border adoption—and arousing consciences to work for its eradication.


Pope Francis opened this year’s message with a biblical reflection on the fact that in “the human family created by God” we are all brothers and sisters, but says “estrangement from God” and the negative reality of sin “often disrupts” and “constantly disfigures” this human fraternity and “gives rise to a culture of enslavement” that includes “rejection of others, their mistreatment, violations of their dignity and fundamental rights, and institutionalized inequality.”

He recalled that from time immemorial “different societies have known the phenomenon of man’s subjugation by man.”

Today, he said, slavery is considered “a crime against humanity” and has formally been abolished throughout the world. But despite numerous international agreements aimed at ending it, “children, women and men of all ages are deprived of freedom and are forced to live in conditions akin to slavery.”

During his 15 years as archbishop of Buenos Aires, a metropolis of some 13 million people, Cardinal Bergoglio saw at first-hand the many forms of modern slavery. He supported NGOs that were combatting this, and personally assisted many victims and survivors. He knows the reality well and in his message he identifies the different forms such slavery takes today.

“I think of the many men and women laborers, including minors, subjugated in different sectors, whether formally or informally, in domestic or agricultural workplaces, or in the manufacturing or mining industry; whether in countries where labor regulations fail to comply with international norms and minimum standards, or, equally illegally, in countries which lack legal protection for workers’ rights,” he said.

He mentioned “the many migrants who, in their dramatic odyssey, experience hunger, are deprived of freedom, robbed of their possessions, or undergo physical and sexual abuse” and who after “a grueling journey marked by fear and insecurity, are detained in at times inhumane conditions.” He recalls too all those “forced to live clandestinely” and those who “in order to remain within the law, agree to disgraceful living and working conditions” where often “the legality of their residency is made dependent on their labor contract.” All this is “slave labor,” he stated.

He recalled too the “persons forced into prostitution, many of whom are minors, as well as male and female sex slaves” and “women forced into marriage” or “sold for arranged marriages” or “bequeathed to relatives of their deceased husbands, without any right to give or withhold their consent.”

He concluded his list by mentioning “those persons, minors and adults alike, who are made objects of trafficking for the sale of organs, for recruitment as soldiers, for begging, for illegal activities such as the production and sale of narcotics, or for disguised forms of cross-border adoption,” and those “kidnapped and held captive by terrorist groups, subjected to their purposes as combatants, or, above all in the case of young girls and women, to be used as sex slaves. Many of these disappear, while others are sold several times over, tortured, mutilated or killed.”

Having identified the victims, the pope surveyed “some of the deeper causes” of this abominable phenomenon. He mentioned first “a notion of the human person which allows him or her to be treated as an object,” not as “beings of equal dignity, as brothers or sisters sharing a common humanity” but ones who “by coercion or deception, or by physical or psychological duress” are “deprived of their freedom, sold and reduced to being the property of others,” as “means to an end.”

Apart from that, Pope Francis put “poverty, underdevelopment and exclusion” at the top of the “deeper causes” of slavery, “especially when combined with a lack of access to education or scarce, even non-existent, employment opportunities.” He says the victims are often people who seek a way out of extreme poverty, but are taken in by false promises of employment, and often end up in the hands of criminal networks that organize human trafficking. 

He listed “corruption on the part of people willing to do anything for financial gain” as another cause of slavery, and notes that slave labor and human trafficking “often require the complicity of intermediaries, be they law enforcement personnel, state officials, or civil and military institutions.” 

Lastly, he included among the other causes of slavery armed conflicts, violence, criminal activity and terrorism. He said many people are kidnapped in order to be sold, enlisted as combatants, or sexually exploited, while others are forced to emigrate, leaving everything behind and become vulnerable too.

pFrancis noted that while there is often “general indifference” to human trafficking, illegal trafficking of migrants and other forms of slavery, the same cannot be said of religious congregations, “especially women’s congregations.” 

He praised “the enormous and often silent efforts” which they have made for many years to provide support to victims,” and said they move “in very difficult situations, dominated at times by violence, as they work to break the invisible chains binding victims to traffickers and exploiters.” They work in three main areas, he said: offering assistance to victims, working for their psychological and educational rehabilitation, and in efforts to reintegrate them into the society where they live or from which they have come.

There were several members of women’s religious congregations at the Vatican press conference, representing the Talitha Kum international network of Consecrated Life against Trafficking in Persons (www.talithakum.info) set up by the International Union of Superiors General in 2009. One of them, Sr. Gabriella Bottani, SMC, who has worked in Brazil, was on the platform with Cardinal Turkson, said they have 26 major networks of women religious working in some 80 countries today. 

Several sisters gave inspiring witness, including well-known Italian sister, Sr. Eugenia Bonetti, who told the press that in recent years they had helped 6,000 young women escape from prostitution in Italy. Sr. Sharmi D’Souza from India reported how in her country they had organized with the police raids on brothels, and in one raid rescued 37 women (12 of them minors), and on other occasions they were able to get 30 traffickers arrested. Sr. Monica Chikwe from Nigeria told about the valiant work she and her sisters do to rescue young Nigerian women from prostitution in Italy and how they have been able to integrate many of them back into society in their homeland.

The sisters said they feel strongly supported in this work by Pope Francis, and added that they hope church leaders – priests and bishops – in the different countries will follow his lead in combatting this slavery.

In his Message, the pope praised the work of these women religious but said that “of itself, it is not sufficient to end the scourge of the exploitation of human persons. There is also need for a threefold commitment on the institutional level: to prevention, to victim protection and to the legal prosecution of perpetrators.” Since the problem is global, he said a global effort is needed on the part of various sectors of society. The sisters completely agree with him.

He called on states to ensure they have an effective legal framework to deal with this problem, “in the areas of migration, employment, adoption, the movement of businesses offshore and the sale of items produced by slave labor,” one that upholds fundamental rights and provides for rehabilitation of victims, and include effective means of enforcement which leave no room for corruption or impunity. 

He called on intergovernmental organizations “to coordinate initiatives for combating the transnational networks of organized crime which oversee the trafficking of persons and the illegal trafficking of migrants.”

He appealed to businesses “to ensure dignified working conditions and adequate salaries for their employees” but said “they must also be vigilant that forms of subjugation or human trafficking do not find their way into the distribution chain.”

He encouraged organizations in civil society to awaken consciences and promote whatever steps are necessary for combating and uprooting the culture of enslavement.

Pope Francis concluded his message with urgent appeal “to all men and women of good will, and all those near or far, including the highest levels of civil institutions, who witness the scourge of contemporary slavery, not to become accomplices to this evil, not to turn away from the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings, who are deprived of their freedom and dignity. Instead, may we have the courage to touch the suffering flesh of Christ, revealed in the faces of those countless persons whom he calls “the least of these my brethren” (Mt 25:40, 45).

The pope’s message has been translated into the different languages and is being transmitted, by the Holy See’s diplomatic missions, to Heads of States and Government across the globe. It will also be used by local churches for discussion in parishes and schools in an effort to encourage initiatives of solidarity and fraternity with the more than 25 million victims or survivors of this modern slavery.

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