Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Human Trafficking Awareness

As National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month comes to an end, it seems apt to comment here at MOJ on this growing form of human degradation and the role we play in its existence. But what does this pressing social and moral issue have to do with Catholic Legal Thought? The relevance is more than the obvious fact that that it "strips victims of their freedom and violates the dignity of the human person created in the image of God." Given the intersection this form of exploitation has with criminal law, international law, labor law, government corruption, and other legal institutions; modern day slavery implicates the obligations of the Church and legal community to respond in a unique way. Failure to do so destines both the American Church and society to repeat a complicated and at times troubling history regarding slavery.

Today, things seem to be progressing at a different pace than the past. Just a few days ago, in an address to the Italian Committee on Bioethics, Pope Francis reminded us that "the ecclesial community and civil society meet and are called to cooperate, in accordance to their distinct skills." As I have written elsewhere, the Church has a unique role to play in combatting human trafficking. This crime knows no geographical boundaries. Therefore, where some governmental organizations are limited by geo-political realities, the Church has the ability to transcend these borders. Moreover, the Church is so often found working with the most marginalized people throughout the world. It is here that human trafficking flourishes. Consequently, the Church and its many affiliated organizations can be essential in both learning information about the manifestations of this most adaptable form of human exploitation, as well as responding to its victims most authentically. This work is exponentially more effective when done in partnership with other aspects of civil and government society.

    It is no wonder, then, that the Church and others working in this area have recently highlighted a particular aspect of human trafficking. In a year in which there has been much discussion of refugees and conflict, the Church and other authorities have independently verified the human trafficking that is flourishing in areas of conflict. In November 2015, the Network of Christian Organizations Against Trafficking in Human Beings (COATNET) met in Paris to discuss the fight against human trafficking. Relying on research from Secours Catholic Caritas France, COATNET members recognized the many manifestations of human trafficking that arise out of conflict. As Caritas noted,

[w]hile some of the forms of exploitation…are specific to countries involved in direct conflict – child soldiering and organ trafficking to treat wounded fighters – the remaining types of trafficking in human beings have many points in common in conflict and post conflict periods."

Among the forms of exploitation beyond child soldiering, Caritas' research discussed collateral instances of trafficking. These include early and forced marriages for the purpose of sexual slavery – sometimes facilitated by kidnapping, but other times by families incorrectly believing that a child marriage may be a way for the child to escape exploitation of conflict. Caritas also shared in this research the reality of economic exploitation in a grey labor market by refugees fleeing conflict but unable to secure positions in the legal labor market. Not only do these regional Catholic organizations observe these phenomena throughout the world and inform our understanding of the forms of exploitation occurring on the ground, but they also confirm what they have labelled a "protection gap." That is to say, they note that identification and protection of victims is not considered and implemented during an emergency response to a conflict or refugee crisis.

    This research was echoed by the State Department's recent release of its fact sheet entitled "Modern Slavery as a Tactic in Armed Conflict." Here, the State Department focuses on armed groups in Syria and Iraq utilizing modern slavery not as a consequence of conflict but, rather, as an actual tactic. Interestingly, each report analyzes how human trafficking in areas of conflict exceeds child soldiering. Both the State Department and Caritas discuss that the slavery of women and children as a particularly devastating technique to effectuate domination of vulnerable civilians.


Women and children in armed conflicts are particularly vulnerable to multiple abuses, including those involving human trafficking and sexual and gender-based violence.

The use of modern slavery as a tactic in the armed conflicts in Iraq and Syria is particularly alarming. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as well as other armed groups and militias, continue to intimidate populations and devastate communities through unconscionable violence, fear, and oppression. ISIL has made the targeting of women and children, particularly from Yezidi and other minority groups, a hallmark of its campaign of atrocities. In the past year, ISIL has abducted, systematically raped, and abused thousands of women and children, some as young as 8 years of age. Many of the horrific human rights abuses that ISIL has engaged in also amount to human trafficking. Women and children are sold and enslaved, distributed to ISIL fighters as spoils of war, forced into marriage and domestic servitude, or subjected to horrific physical and sexual abuse. ISIL has established "markets" where women and children are sold with price tags attached and has published a list of rules on how to treat female slaves once captured.

The observations of the State Department are in sync with and informed by those religious organizations working with these populations throughout the world. Much like in the 19th Century, the faithful are called upon to respond to modern slavery. The battles against this injustice and indignity are challenging ones. However, opposition is one made all the stronger when religious institutions and actors embrace their opportunity to combat it and work with civil society to eradicate it.


Leary, Mary G. | Permalink