Human trafficking - a Mercy issue for our time

In June 2014, Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby expressed their horror at the scourge of human trafficking. The pope singled out for praise ‘the network of action against trafficking in women created by a number of women’s religious institutes.’ Sisters of Mercy around the world are active in this field as the story below reports.

Sisters of Mercy from around the world joined up early in June 2014, using an Adobe Connect link, to discuss their Congregation’s opposition to human trafficking. The group included New Zealander Anna Nicholls.

The world’s media have reported on incidents, especially on pornography that involves children. Recent focus has also highlighted slave labour in some countries, specifically around sporting events such as the construction of stadia for World Cup soccer events in both Brazil and Qatar, where migrant workers have been forced to live and work in appalling slave-like conditions.

Questions being explored by Sisters of Mercy include how best to maximise the collective efforts of Mercy Global Action (MGA) in opposing the crimes of human trafficking, and how to address the problem’s root causes.

MGA’s director in New York, Áine O’Connor notes that despite the diversity of the problem in different areas, there are common threads emerging which point to the value of worldwide networking. This is especially true of legislative advocacy and resource sharing.

In New Zealand, the focus has been mainly on slave-labour, whilst in Ireland the focus on human trafficking relates primarily to sexual exploitation.

Anna Nicholls is New Zealand contact person within the Congregation for issues related to the topic, and catches up every couple of months with her counterparts in other countries through a video conference.
“I suspect the issue of trafficking is much bigger in New Zealand than we imagine,” she says. “We have the impression that human trafficking is big in countries like those in Europe, where the borders are easy to cross, and we think that because we are so isolated that it’s not such an issue for us.

“But trafficking in New Zealand is especially about the exploitation of migrant workers, and for workers who come here expecting something different from what they experience when they get here. So it’s trafficking under a different name, really.”

Anna says that a lot of what she has heard is anecdotal. “Part of our focus is to get some good local research; even on the things that have surfaced in newspapers lately about migrant workers who come in and get paid $4 an hour.”

One situation that has concerned a colleague of Anna’s involves a young woman from Vietnam. A New Zealander went over and made a contract with her family to marry her, then brought her back to a situation she was not expecting. “Although people will often come freely to New Zealand, they come for one reason but what they get when they arrive is not what they expected. So that can be defined as trafficking – because they are not coming freely to what they receive.”

Anna notes that New Zealand has not yet prosecuted anyone for human trafficking. “And because no one has been caught trafficking, the laws haven’t had a chance to be tested well. There are international protocols on trafficking, but I’m not sure that New Zealand is signed up as fully as we could be.”

As to whether Sisters of Mercy should be concerned about this issue, Anna Nicholls is in no doubt. “Catherine McAuley was a woman of the gospel who heard the call of Jesus to help those in need. And that’s what we are called to do, responding to the needs of our time.

“Trafficking is so much one of the needs of our time. Evidence tells us there are more slaves now than ever. In terms of Mercy, there are so many people who are being trafficked that need the touch of Mercy. A large number of these are women and young girls, which form Catherine’s focus.”

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