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World Day Against Trafficking in Persons aims to raise awareness for victims and promote and protect their rights

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Portuguese maritime police investigate one of two sites where hundreds of human trafficking victims, mostly migrants from Southeast Asia, were found near Lisbon June 21, 2023. (OSV News photo/Miguel Pereira, Reuters)

LONDON — Human trafficking doesn’t happen only in far away places where human rights are neglected. It happens around the corner.

It’s modern-day slavery, say those working to stop it around the world.

“Slavery didn’t end in the United States with the Civil War and the 13th Amendment in 1865. Legal slavery ended,” said Greg Burke, a former Vatican spokesman who develops strategic partnerships for the anti-slavery charity Arise, which has offices in London and the U.S. “What continues to this day is people — most of them young women — being enslaved in massage parlors, nail salons and prostitution rings, working to pay off massive debts they owe to the people who have tricked and trafficked them.”

July 30 is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, which aims to raise awareness about the victims of human trafficking and promote and protect their rights.

This year’s theme, “Reach every victim of trafficking, leave no one behind,” calls on governments, law enforcement, public services and civil society to assess and enhance their efforts to strengthen prevention, identify and support victims, and end impunity.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime noted that globally, national responses to trafficking, “particularly in developing States, appear to be deteriorating.”

Detection rates fell by 11% in 2020 and convictions plummeted by 27%, illustrating a worldwide slowdown in the criminal justice response to trafficking, according to the U.N. office.

The COVID-19 pandemic, it said, also changed the characteristics of trafficking, “pushing it further underground and potentially increasing the dangers to victims by making the crime less likely to come to the attention of the authorities.”

Forty-one percent of victims who manage to escape their ordeal reach out to the authorities on their own initiative, the U.N. agency said, calling this “another clear sign that anti-trafficking responses are falling short.”

The primary targets of traffickers, according to the organization, are “those who lack legal status, live in poverty, have limited access to education, health care, or decent work, face discrimination, violence, or abuse, or come from marginalized communities.”

“Runaway kids are particularly easy prey, getting picked up at bus stations and malls within days of having left home,” Burke said.

“Owning slaves is incredibly profitable, (even more so than dealing drugs) and quite difficult to prosecute, so traffickers are brazen in going about their business,” he added.

Salesian Missions, the U.S. development arm of the Salesians of Don Bosco, joined humanitarian organizations and countries around the globe in recognizing World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.

Salesian missionaries, operating in over 130 countries, work both to prevent human trafficking and to care for victims who are living on the streets and seeking a second chance in life.

A member of the Panamanian security forces attends the June 2, 2023, launch of Operaci√≥n Choc√≥ from Nicanor Air Base by the Panamanian government at that country’s border with Colombia to fight organized crime and human trafficking linked to the growing flow of migrants crossing the dangerous jungle of the Darien Gap. (OSV News photo/Aris Martinez, Reuters)

Father Timothy Ploch, interim director of Salesian Missions, said these missionaries “educate youth about the dangers associated with migration, which can put them at risk of trafficking and those who might wish them harm.”

“One of the primary ways we support youth is understanding the needs of the local market and providing training programs that help youth find work in their own communities, in employment sectors that are looking for skilled labor,” Father Ploch said.

In Mexico, for example, the Salesian Tijuana Project provides services to migrants and poor youth living on Mexico’s border with the U.S. and is working to create an extensive educational network in areas where poor youth are at risk of social exclusion.

The project’s Salesian Refectory is a hub for migrants who, besides much-needed material help, also are offered a “familiar and welcoming environment,” Salesian Missions said in a statement sent to OSV News.

In Peruvian capital, Lima, the Salesians run Don Bosco House in the Magdalena del Mar neighborhood, which was established to provide support for the wave of Venezuelan migrants, who came to the city in 2018 and 2019.

“Today, it is a shelter that houses 45 young migrants and refugees between the ages of 18 and 25, as well as five families who are faced with extreme poverty. More than 700 youth have passed through Don Bosco House in recent years, including youth from Ecuador and Colombia,” the statement said.

“At Don Bosco House, youth have the support of educators and psychologists, and they live in a family atmosphere that fosters personal and spiritual growth. These youth have faced abandonment, separation, child labor and prison experiences,” Salesian Missions added.

Salesian programs also are active in Africa. In Sierra Leone, the Don Bosco Fambul Girls Shelter provides support and recovery for underage girls who are victims of sexual violence and abuse and were forced into prostitution. There they get an education and a chance “to start a new life.” In Uganda a similar house was founded for boys.

“How to put an end to the problem?” asked Burke. “First of all, shine a light on it. When ordinary people realize what’s going on, even in their own neighborhoods, they’ll take steps to stop it. See something, say something.”

Among those taking steps to stop human trafficking are Catholic religious sisters, which the Arise foundation considers unsung heroes in this movement. On Oct. 31 in London, Arise will honor three sisters at a global ceremony to present the Sisters Anti Trafficking Awards, or SATAs.

“For decades, Catholic sisters have worked to alleviate human suffering and prevent exploitation in their communities,” Arise said in a press statement sent to OSV News. “Talitha Kum, the global sisters’ anti-trafficking network, boasts over 6,000 members in over 90 countries — more anti-trafficking agents than even the largest aid agencies.”

The SATAs are co-hosted by Arise, the Conrad H. Hilton Foundation and the International Union of Superiors General.

The winners are being honored as representatives of their congregations and networks, “who have demonstrated exceptional courage, creativity, collaboration and achievement in the protection of their communities from human trafficking,” Arise said.

Martin Foley, executive director of Arise, said that “across countless high-risk regions, we find challenging, unglamorous but highly effective anti-trafficking work being carried out by Catholic sisters.”

“The work includes survivor rehabilitation, income generation, school enrollment, community vigilance projects, and awareness campaigns. It’s high time these efforts were celebrated and learned from,” Foley said.

Sister Patricia Murray of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is executive secretary of International Union of Superiors General, said that “while the awards honor sisters for their courage and creativity, collaboration with many people from different faith traditions and with women and men of goodwill is key to combating the scourge of human trafficking which disfigures human dignity.”