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In fight to end human trafficking, educating migrants about risks they face called ‘essential’

WASHINGTON — Ask women religious leaders on the front lines of the fight against human trafficking and the exploitation of cheap migrant labor, and you hear less about government programs and more about educating the migrants.

“It can happen to anyone anywhere,” Maryknoll Sister Abby Avelino said at a March 6 webinar sponsored by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Thought and Public Life. She is the international coordinator of Talitha Kum, the International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons.

“(It) is horrendous — a big crime against humanity,” said Sister Patricia Ebegbulem, a Sister of St. Louis, who operates a shelter for trafficking victims in Nigeria.

Sister Licia Joseph, a Sister of Mary Immaculate, who has served on the Canon Law Council of the International Union of Superiors General, called it “the modern form of slavery.”

Most exploited factory labor from trafficked migrants involves the manufacture of electronics,.

It is difficult to get members of the public to notice the situation and take action, said Katie Boller Gosewsich, executive director of the Alliance to End Human Trafficking. Her group is a collaborative, faith-based national network that offers education and access to survivor services.

“If something looks out of place or not quite right … I think people are hesitant to approach law enforcement or nonprofit organizations that can maybe help, because they’re worried about getting it wrong,” she added. “I think it is super important for everyone to understand that education is incredibly powerful.”

Sister Patricia advised would-be migrants, “Make sure you’re migrating properly with the correct documents so people don’t take advantage of your vulnerability. Make sure you know exactly where you’re going. Traffickers are very, very cunning.”

Sister Licia said young, illiterate migrants in search of more money usually fall prey to a trafficker’s promise of “easy money, better pay and a comfortable life” and offers of as little as $100.

She said agents for traffickers promise mothers the equivalent of a dowry to enable their daughters to get married. “But then the poor children are sold into brothel houses.” The terrifying result can be “cheap labor, prostitution and also removal of organs” such as kidneys, she said.

Catholic social teaching about human dignity is always at the core, said Sister Patricia. “We call them treasures. We don’t refer to them as victims. We don’t refer to them as survivors. … We tell them that nothing happens by chance. God has a reason for directing them to us.”

In January, Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced bipartisan legislation to make human traffickers pay for their crimes in court and prevent victims from having to endure a forced arbitration process. But so far, that bill is stalled in the Senate.

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