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Speaker at St. Thomas More Oratory raises concerns about human trafficking on college campuses

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Felicitas Brugo Onetti of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops speaks about human trafficking at St. Thomas More Oratory on April 4. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

NEWARK — Human trafficking — the use of force, fraud or coercion to induce someone into labor or sexual exploitation — is on the rise, but there are ways to combat it. That was the message from an official from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops who spoke at the St. Thomas More Oratory on April 4.

Felicitas Brugo Onetti, the anti-trafficking education and outreach coordinator at the Migration and Refugee Services office of the USCCB, spoke at the oratory as the University of Delaware’s Catholic Campus Ministry kicked off its latest series of Catholic Conversations. Three more are scheduled, on April 11 and 18 and May 2.

Also known as “modern-day slavery,” trafficking claims about 49.6 million victims globally, Brugo Onetti said, about one million of those in the United States. She noted that Pope Francis, who, like herself, is an Argentinian, talks about human trafficking quite often and is dedicated to St. Josephine Bakhita, the patron saint of victims of trafficking.

“He says human trafficking is a crime against the basic dignity and rights of the human person,” she said. “All efforts must be expended to end it.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church forbids acts that lead to enslavement, Brugo Onetti said. In addition, Catholic social teaching promotes the dignity of the person, the dignity of work, a preferential option for the poor, and a pro-life ethic.

“In all stages of life, people deserve to be treated with respect, with dignity,” she said.

Brugo Onetti tailored her talk for a college audience. She said college students can be especially vulnerable to sexual or labor exploitation for a number of reasons. For example, many participate in risky behaviors. Some have low self-esteem or mental health issues. A history of abuse can play a role, as can unstable housing situations and substance use. In addition, the locations of some colleges and universities — whether in rural or urban areas — can play a role.

“Perpetrators will always use your weaknesses against you. Perpetrators are very smart,” Brugo Onetti said. “They prey on people they think if they can get away with it.”

Some states have loosened restrictions on child labor, “and that can be very concerning,” she added.

Some signs to watch for that might indicate trafficking include a person in an intimate relationship with someone significantly older than him or her; limited contact with friends or family; restrictions on where he or she can go; suddenly wearing expensive clothing or jewelry; or a change in behavior.

Traffickers attract students at popular events, through social media and online dating apps, Brugo Onetti said. College campuses are “breeding grounds” for recruitment.

The effects of trauma show up in various ways and have lasting effects. Victims often have post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

Seventy percent of victims are female, although the number of male victims is rising, she continued. And it happens in plain sight.

“Trafficking isn’t what we used to see in the movies” with someone being forced into a white van, Brugo Onetti said. “It’s all about trust and manipiulation.”

For more information, Brugo Onetti suggested people go to www.justiceforimmigrants.org/stbakhita.