Looking into the issue of human trafficking takes you to some very dark places. Described by the United Nations as the world’s fastest growing organized crime, the trafficking of people into forced labour or sexual slavery is a massive problem, with victims all over the world, including Canada. Most of them are women and children.
Throughout the Anglican Communion, people are recognizing the need for action, and Anglicans are asking what they can do to help end the suffering. Last May, the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Jamaica passed a resolution proposed by the International Anglican Women’s Network.
It called on the Communion to support the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls, including trafficking. And last November, Hellen Akwii Wangusa, Anglican observer and personal representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury at the UN, worked with the diocese of Hong Kong to organize and sponsor a conference on trafficking.
The conference was held in Hong Kong, she said, to help support the church in Asia where trafficking is a big issue. She added, however, that the issue has become so politicized that people in the church are afraid of speaking out because of the danger of being victimized or classified as anti-government.
Reached in January, Wangusa said the conference achieved more than expected, but also acknowledged that reports from those who work with victims as well as victims themselves made the “gravity of the situation” seem overwhelming.
According to one estimate from the U.S. State Department’s 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report, about 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders. This does not include the “millions” trafficked within their own countries. A 2006 report from the same agency estimated that 800 people are trafficked into Canada each year with 1,500 or more travelling through Canada to the U.S.
Wangusa said she was pleased to learn that some Anglican churches are already working to stop trafficking. The delegates at the conference, including Canadian youth delegate Keira Constable of Montreal, heard a priest from a parish in the Himalayan region of India talk about how his church helped rescue a young girl who had been promised a job but was actually sold as the bride of a 60-year-old man. Although traumatized, the girl is now back with her family.
“We need to set up partnerships with organizations that are already working,” to end trafficking, said Wangusa. She noted that Anglicans in the Communion have started to work with UNICEF and ECPAT, an international organization working to end child prostitution, pornography and trafficking. “They have had some successes and they also want to learn from us about the successes [such as the one in India],” she said.
One Canadian veteran of the fight against trafficking is Brian McConaghy, a former RCMP forensic scientist. In 1989 he founded the Ratanak Foundation, an ecumenical Christian charity, to do relief and development work in Cambodia. He started to help trafficking victims only after the Vancouver police, investigating videos of child pornography found on the Internet, asked him to help identify locations in Cambodia in 2004. Although it took McConaghy only 72 hours to pinpoint where the crimes were being carried out, he was so affected by the images of abuse that he left his career with the RCMP two years short of a pension to work full-time with the Ratanak Foundation. His new focus: helping rehabilitate children in Southeast Asia who have been trafficked and sexually exploited.
“When you see these children and go into the brothels and meet them and they are no longer images on a TV screen, they are real kids holding your hand, it’s life-changing,” he says. But he warns this kind of mission work is dangerous. “If you are going to separate children from their traffickers, it is no different than separating cocaine from drug dealers…. You really need to know what you are doing… It is by definition adversarial,” he says.
The foundation takes a non-confrontational approach, offering to rehabilitate children in secret, high-security locations after they have been rescued by police. There are 59 children in one centre and smaller numbers of boys and girls in foster home programs. Another 60 girls are in a rehabilitation program that helps them acquire job skills. The youngest children in the centre are five years of age, the oldest, 17 years.
“In terms of the actual assaults, they’ve been raped thousands of times, many thousands of times, so the physical and psychological implications are incredible,” says McConaghy.
Rehabilitation takes years of patient care and love. The foundation is Christian, but the rehabilitation program serves children of any faith. “These kids have never seen compassion before,” McConaghy explains. “They have never seen people prepared to risk their lives for them before. They have never been told they are valuable before, so they automatically ask the staff ‘Why are you doing this?’ ” Having won the trust of the government that oversees the program, the staff have permission to tell the children about their own faith, he says.
Back in Canada, McConaghy says there are things Canadian churches can do to help fight trafficking. Although there have been some predictions that the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver could result in an increase in trafficking, McConaghy says opinions among his law enforcement contacts are mixed. He thinks the Olympics are less likely to increase trafficking than an event such as the World Cup, where men are more apt to attend on their own.
“Canadians don’t understand the gravity of the human trafficking situation,” he said. “If the Olympics have served to open people’s eyes and get them interested in this, I think it is a huge service the Olympics have done for us,” he says. “It’s a massive issue that Christians must engage with….”
He suggested that Canadians could call on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to put human trafficking on the agenda of issues to be discussed when Canada hosts the G8 and G20 summits in June.
And there is hope. In 2009, McConaghy visited some of the girls who were rehabilitated as a result of the Vancouver investigation. “We were joking and laughing and I asked if I could pray for them and I did. And then to my astonishment, when I was done, they said, ‘We would like to pray for you.’ I never thought I’d have the privilege of finding them or meeting them, let alone having them bless me.”
Next issue: Trafficking in Canada