By Gina Christian
(OSV News) — Human trafficking is directly — and dangerously — linked to forced migration, said experts and survivors during a recent panel discussion.
The U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, or USCSAHT, and the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd held a June 14 webinar to explore the ways in which those driven from their homelands often end up being exploited and enslaved.
Both USCSAHT and the National Advocacy Center have worked extensively to end human trafficking and support survivors as part of their respective commitments to social justice.
Panelists included Cristian Eduardo, an advocate and educator for immigrants, trafficking victims and LGBTQ+ persons, and a member of USCSAHT’s survivor advisory board; Sister Tracey Horan, a Sister of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, and associate director of education and advocacy for the Kino Border Initiative, a Catholic ministry to migrants and refugees based in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico; and Sister Mary Jean Doyle, a member of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and a case manager for the Trafficking Victims Assistance Program of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Sister Ann Scholz, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, moderated the discussion, of which Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., were honorary co-chairs.
As of December 2022, some 108.4 million persons were forcibly displaced throughout the world, with 35.3 million refugees, 62.5 million internally displaced, 5.4 million asylum-seekers and 5.2 million others in need of international protection, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Global Trends 2022 report.
Though not formally defined in international law, the term “forced migration” is often used to describe several types of displacement that have become increasingly common in recent years due to environmental disasters, conflict, famine and other factors, according to the UNHCR.
Regardless of any lack of legal definition, however, “forced migration” represents a harrowing and all-too-common reality, said Eduardo.
“A lot of people think that it’s a decision that you just made one day, that people wake up and decide to just come … to another country and just start a new life,” he said. “That is not how forced migration works.”
As a 24-year-old, he found himself “labor and sexually exploited” in Canada and the U.S. after escaping “a dire situation” in his native Mexico, where poverty and gang violence are rampant.
He also feared being killed as “nobody in my family and my friends knew that I was a gay man,” he said, explaining, “There is still a lot of machismo around in Central and South America about the LGBT community living in poverty.”
Eduardo said in Mexico he was “studying and working at the same time,” but “reached a point that even if I was trying every single day, it wasn’t enough.”
“My trafficker offered me an employment opportunity out of Mexico,” he said.
After six months of being trafficked in Canada, he escaped to the U.S., only to learn upon his arrival that he was HIV-positive.
Without family, friends or fluency in English, “I didn’t know anything about my rights,” he said. “The only thing I was hearing was this constant narrative against immigrants. … ‘Immigrants are not welcome here. … We don’t care about their stories.'”
Fear of deportation silenced him, he said.
“No matter what was happening to me, no matter if I was being sexually assaulted … I am the guilty one here because of my immigration status,” he said.
Traffickers “use that lack of immigration status” and fear of deportation “as a tool of coercion,” said Eduardo, who urged “policies and legislation” to create support systems for those forced to flee to the U.S.
Sister Horan, who has served since 2019 at the Arizona-Mexico border, said “over the years we’ve seen how the U.S. government is chipping away at these legal pathways.”
As a result, those fleeing conflict, poverty and violence “are forced to wait for weeks, months, sometimes years in Mexico if they want to access asylum,” she said. “And that translates into being kidnapped, trafficked or abused by these criminal groups.”
Mexico itself is problematic, since it is “a country where impunity as well as the collaboration between government officials and organized crime groups is rampant,” said Sister Horan. “So that means that people who are seeking safety are many times stuck in a place where their captors can track them down, and there’s also no consequences.”
One teen girl aided by Kino Border Initiative had escaped forced prostitution in Central America and was recaptured by the same criminal gang a month later, said Sister Horan. Mexican police “did nothing,” and after the girl’s family rescued her and sought relief in the U.S., “the found a closed door under Title 42,” a provisional U.S. public health policy reenacted in March 2020 on the grounds of preventing COVID, and only repealed in May of this year.
With U.S. immigration policies “constantly changing” and being “very confusing,” criminal groups in Mexico and Central America “have now made a business out of crossing asylum seekers into the U.S,” said Sister Tracey. “When we’re blocking access to asylum, that translates into these increased funding streams for criminal groups. And those groups are then better resourced to continue taking advantage of people.”
Essential to helping migrants and refugees is “the need to establish basic trust,” said Sister Doyle. “This takes time and relationship development.”
She also stressed “the need for resources,” as well as “the efforts to help with those resources.”
Migration advocates must focus on teaching skills to navigate in a new country to foster self-sufficiency, she said.
Above all, “listen with your head and your heart to the journey of the whole person,” said Sister Doyle. “Each story is different. So much unknown, so much pain and baggage, but there is the potential for openness to so much good.”