Human trafficking, or modern-day slavery as it is called by some, has become a lucrative business. It impacts women, children and men and can take the forms of sex trafficking or debt bondage. Farming and mining are just a few of the professions where workers barely make enough to feed themselves much less their families.
Presbyterians attending last week’s Big Tent in Knoxville heard firsthand about the work taking place within the church and its partners to address the problem worldwide. Members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Human Trafficking Roundtable led a workshop on the issue. Speakers included Carl Horton with the Peacemaking Program, Ryan Smith with the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and Teresa Waggener, coordinator with the Office of Immigration Issues.
According to national and international studies, the total number of trafficked persons is in the millions as people are forced into labor or servitude in such industries as agriculture, construction, manufacturing, prostitution, domestic service or marriage. In most instances, said the group, people find themselves in these situations because of desperate circumstances.
“Many people leaving troubled regions like Syria and Iraq in desperation and are likely traveling without proper documentation or money,” said Waggener. “They are at high risk of exploitation even after they get here.”
Waggener’s work has focused on the U.S./Mexico border where nearly 70,000 have immigrated in the last year from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras-seeking protection from trafficking or hard labor.
“Our government was embarrassed and unprepared for this massive influx so it is helping Mexico by fortifying its borders to keep people from coming into the U.S.,” she said. “This has actually made it more dangerous for immigrants because now they are more likely to engage with individuals that mean to harm or control them.”
The Human Trafficking Roundtable was created in response to General Assembly action, meeting regularly to develop strategies along with congregations, presbyteries and synods. The roundtable has also created numerous public awareness campaigns around the issues as well as sermons, Bible studies and more. It has provided take-action opportunities through legislatures, corporate campaigns, shareholder initiatives and human trafficking awareness trainings for interested presbyteries.
The 2014 General Assembly called for a comprehensive study on human trafficking, creating a study team to help the church create a stronger policy base. The new team was appointed by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) and will report its findings at the 222nd General Assembly next year.
One of those attending the workshop at Big Tent was Doris Evans of Euclid, Ohio. The session was especially important to her because she believes her goddaughter has recently become a victim of trafficking in the U.S.
Evans says family discovered that the 18-year-old girl had been seeing a 35-year-old man and was last seen by security cameras at a hotel in April. The girl has not been heard from and was not considered a likely runaway, according to Evans.
“This workshop gave me hope that perhaps there are people out there who might be able to help her or recognize that she may be in trouble,” Evans said. “If people recognize she is in distress, perhaps they will reach out to help.”
For additional information on human trafficking or learn more about the Human Trafficking Roundtable, visit www.pcusa.org/humantrafficking.