By Philippa Hitchen
Church leaders from different parts of the globe joined police chiefs and other experts in human trafficking for a press conference in the Vatican on Friday at the conclusion of the fifth Santa Marta conference.
English Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster presented the results of the two-day encounter, which participants shared with Pope Francis at an audience earlier in the morning.
The Santa Marta group was set up in 2014 to forge closer cooperation between law enforcement officials worldwide and Catholic groups working to combat human trafficking.
At this week’s meeting, representatives from 30 countries discussed efforts to support survivors and to prosecute the traffickers, as well as partnering with the media to raise greater awareness of this global problem.
Among those attending the meeting was Victoria Atkins, Britain’s minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability. She told us about the invaluable contribution the Santa Marta group makes to her government’s efforts to eradicate this modern form of slavery.
Atkins says she brings a message of thanks to the Holy See for its commitment to tackling this problem which affects over 40 million vulnerable people around the world. She notes that British Prime Minster Theresa May last autumn issued a call to action to leaders meeting at the United Nations in New York, urging them to sign an international pledge on eradicating human trafficking.
The UK wants to share its significant experience in this area, she says, but also “to listen to our partners to find out what they’re experiencing, and to see if there are any answers that we can find together”.
Partnerships with media
Atkins says the British government values and respects the work that Cardinal Nichols has done, most recently in partnership with London’s daily newspaper, the Evening Standard, to throw the spotlight on modern slavery on the streets of the capital. That report found that while Britain is a world leader in anti-slavery legislation, much more needs to be done in terms of delivery and greater accountability.
Listening to survivors
Atkins says the government has listened to victims, to the Church and to charities working in this field, and is now offering more, longer-term support for survivors, as well as setting up a specialist drop-in centre.
Responding to charges from the Anti-Slavery Commissioner that victims are being failed by British police, Atkins says the Modern Slavery Act, that Theresa May introduced as Home Secretary, is “only a couple of years old”, meaning that “we really are at the beginning of the journey in getting these cases through courts and getting convictions”
Modern Slavery Act
But she points to a conviction in Lincolnshire last year of 11 gang masters, who were given an 80-year sentence for having enslaved 18 people for over 26 years. She says it’s vital that police officers “know they have these powers and use them”.
Finally, Atkins says her government is “delighted that the Holy Father has made this a priority” and is grateful for the invaluable work of religious sisters, as well as for work of the Church around the world.