Continental Network Against Modern Slavery

In August, I attended the Seminario Continental Against Human Trafficking organized by Confederation of Latin American Religious (CLAR) in Bogota, Colombia. Seventeen Daughters of Charity from all different provinces of the Americas attended the seminar.

During our time together, we talked about awareness and the importance of the dignity of the human person. The main objective was to strengthen our networks for the defense of every life.

The dynamics led us to move from a global understanding of the phenomenon of trafficking, especially from the perspective of migration, to a biblical reflection to continue to reframe our different charisms around a new axis given by the cries of life and of the poor.

Following this conference, the Daughters of Charity Intercontinental Commission on Modern Slavery met at the Provincial House in Bogota to revise and complete the study we initiated in February 2016. This study came about after our General Assembly where we were encouraged to “share commitments to ending modern forms of slavery.” We were also encouraged to choose concrete commitment to ending modern slavery in each of our provinces, to increase networking, and to go out to the peripheries and to difficult areas.

 

Through a process of small and large group discussions, our ideas and plans were developed into a draft document. The document included specific content across three detailed areas: structure & communication, formation, and action & collaboration.

Each member shared with the group a couple specific points from the Seminario Continental Against Human Trafficking that stood out as being important to include in our present work against trafficking and for migrants.

The dynamics of welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating forced us to think strategically about new ways of acting against Human Trafficking and how to accompany migrants. We focused on how we could work together and with other groups to reach our goal as this is a collaborative problem that will require many individuals.

My Time in Palenque

During my time in Palenque, a city in the southern part of Mexico, I visited one of the shelters for migrants run by the Daughters of Charity of the Province of Mexico. The needs of the individuals they serve was immediately clear.

Palenque, located some miles from the Guatemalan border, is on the route for immigrants fleeing from the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Many of these refugees are traveling with the goal of reaching the United States. To do so, they must ride on the notorious Mexican freight trains, collectively known as “La Bestia” or The Beast. These machines have taken the limbs and lives of countless hopeful migrants. While the exact number is unknown, it is estimated that some 60,000 adults and children have died or gone missing along this route in the past couple of years.

In addition to the physical risks of the journey, the Mexican government has placed dozens of temporary immigration checkpoints in the Southern State of Chiapas to complement the large permanent checkpoints and detention facilities of the area. In this way, the Mexican southern border resembles that of the United States.

The Daughters of Charity living in Palenque run “La Casa del Caminante” (which translates to the House of the Walker), a shelter that welcomes refugees along this path. The shelter welcomes an average of 120 migrants each day, many arriving via La Bestia. Others arrive on foot, seeking a place to rest while waiting to board La Bestia.

Each of these refugees is physically exhausted and in desperate need of rest, food, and often healthcare. Between riding on top of La Bestia and walking miles at a time, they have been traveling day and night, sometimes for weeks. Many have nothing but the clothes on their back and their feet are almost always covered in blood. Not only are they seeking food and a place to rest, but they are in need of medical care and shoes.

While the majority of those arriving at the shelter are many, the Sisters also see many young women. Often these women are pregnant after being raped earlier in their route. Just yesterday, a family of five arrived in need of food and care. They are the lucky ones who are still traveling together, yet to be separated.

After my visit with these Sisters and those they help, I realized more than ever before, the struggles of these migrants. Truly, my heart is still in Palenque with them.

Recovering from ISIS Captivity

Coping with the effects of sexual assault and rape is overwhelming. It is a complex form of trauma that breaches the physical, mental, and spiritual trust of a person against their will. Due to high levels of stress caused by abuse, a person can experience chronic fatigue and many other symptoms.

Two weeks after her rescue, Souhayla, a Yazidi native of Iraq, was still experiencing many of these symptoms. She could not sit up. Her physical injuries were significant, but fortunately, not life-threatening. The sixteen year old’s near unconsciousness was the result of severe shock after three years of serial rape as a captive of ISIS.

Souhayla’s village was raided by ISIS in 2014. Citing a defunct statute of Islamic law, ISIS deemed the Yazidi ethnic minority eligible for enslavement. Soulhayla was held as a prisoner is Mosul, Iraq where she was raped time and time again by multiple men. She was later moved to an area of Mosul that was riddled with armed conflict. It was here that her captor was killed in an airstrike, destroying much of his house. She found the strength to climb through the debris to an Iraqi checkpoint. She was later reunited with her family.

Now back home, Souhayla is slowly recovering, as is common for women who have suffered this type of abuse. Almost 90% of these women slip into a coma-like shock after their rescue as a way of dealing with the psychological trauma they have endured. At first, many show an alarming amount of indoctrinate, unable to abandon their ISIS ideals.

3,410 Yazidi people remain captive or unaccounted for as the conflict in the Middle East continues. Souhayla and her family hope that their story will raise awareness of this abomination of human rights and bring rescue and healing to girls like her.

You can read more of Souhayla’s story here.

Migration from Central America

How can we not be shocked after the tragedy that we have seen these past days in San Antonio?

An overheated trailer carrying many migrants–possibly from the border–was found in a Walmart parking lot. Ten men lost their lives and others are still in precarious conditions. Police believe it is a case of smuggling and/or human trafficking and are still investigating.

“This happens more often than we care to imagine,” Jonathan Ryan, Executive Director of RAICES, told USA Today. “We see it day in and day out in our offices.”

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons identifies a clear link between illegal migration and trafficking in persons. In fact, migration exacerbates trafficking.

However, in North America, some migration flows are particularly vulnerable to traffickers. Presently, the majority of persons migrating to the United States are from Central America. They are particularly at risk because of their long trek through Mexico which is infamous for cartels and gangs preying on migrants.

These cartels and gangs have birthed a new reality for migrants. A reality of abduction of persons or groups of migrants, held in order to require from them–or their families–ransom in exchange for release. Human beings are being increasingly considered merchandise. Not only is anyone hoping to reach the U.S. border via Mexico expected to pay a “right of exit” imposed by the reigning local cartels, but, as migrants near the border, smugglers (also known as “coyotes”) must be paid to lead the immigrants across the border.

So where are these migrants coming from and why are they coming?

Over the past few years, the violence led by criminal gangs has created worse living conditions throughout Central American, particularly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Territorial conflicts among the gangs have created a climate of violence, terror, and fear that has eroded the social fabric in communities. In desperation, men, women, and children have been fleeing their homelands seeking simply to survive and, hopefully, create a better life for their families. For many, migration is the only option.

In some regions of these countries, the law of the gang is absolute. Young people are extremely vulnerable of being recruited through intimidation and threats of violence against them or their families. They are under pressure to become drug dealers, thieves, or intimidators. Often, families prefer to see their sons and daughters flee their homeland rather than be killed or forced into a criminal lifestyle. As a result, many teens and children are encouraged, even begged, to leave their country, often times without a parent.

What do these migrants face on their way to a better life?

According to reports by migrants who have successfully made it across the U.S. border, violence continues throughout the entire migration route, particularly in Mexico. Most of these individuals are vulnerable due to their lack of legal documentation to allow them to cross Mexico safely. Many are frequently forced to pay traffickers working directly with organized crime networks to avoid being exploited into labor and sex trafficking.

These migrants also often face a systematic cycle of abuse. Public transportation drivers apply higher rates, corrupt police officers require them to pay to continue on their way, gangs claiming to be migrants infiltrate and assault them, organized crime groups inflict violence ranging from extortion to rape, torture, and kidnapping. Every penny is taken from the migrants whenever an opportunity arises. Sadly, many lose their lives.

Perhaps the starkest example of the commonality of brutality on the journey is that many women take contraceptives before their departure from Central America. They know the journey contains a high risk of sexual assault. Credible estimates are that 80% of women migrating through Mexico are raped.

Upon reaching the United States border, most Central Americans admit to their origins, seeking entrance as refugees fleeing from violence and death in their homeland. They are put through a process called “credible fear” so they are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship while it is not safe to return to their country of origin.

Local churches in the United States provide a safe haven and passage for these migrants once they cross the border. These organizations aid them on the trips to their families or sponsors. Further, the USCCB coordinates a coalition to alert people and work against human trafficking.

As long as violence and poverty persist in their home country, nothing will discourage these migrants from taking the risk of the journey to the United States. It is not possible to take away their hopes of a better life, especially for their children. Any solution to this problem will require an analysis of every factor involved in the process of migration.

My recent experience of visiting our Sisters at their shelter for migrants at Reynosa on the Mexican border saddened me greatly. The majority of migrants had been deported. They had been taken from their families after working, paying taxes, leading a crime-free life for 20-25 years, only to be dumped in a highly dangerous, gang-infested area, the very atmosphere from which they had fled years prior. You could see the hopelessness, the sadness, the terror that they were now experiencing once again.

World Day Against Trafficking in Persons

The World Day Against Trafficking in persons was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution A/RES/68/192. It is to take place tomorrow, July 30.

Trafficking in persons is a serious crime and a grave violation of human rights. Every year, thousands of men, women, and children fall into the hands of traffickers in their own countries and abroad. Almost every country in the world is affected by trafficking whether as a country of origin, transit, or destination for victims. UNODC, as a guardian of the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) and the protocols thereto assists States in their efforts to implement the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons (Trafficking in Persons Protocol).

Article 3 paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines trafficking in persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power, or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

So, how can you help?

Learn about the local and global reality of human trafficking.
Pray for an end to human trafficking.
Demand slave-free products and buy fair trade when possible.
Advocate for state and federal legislation that protects victims and prevents human trafficking.

Originally published by the United Nations.

San Antonio Tragedy

Early yesterday morning, 38 individuals were found dead or near death in a big rig trailer parked in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio, Texas. They were discovered by an employee after a man had approached him begging for water. Thirty of these individuals were taken to nearby hospitals in critical condition with signs of heat stroke and dehydration after being locked in the trailer without water or air conditioning in the crippling 100+ degree heat. The other eight were found dead on the scene. A ninth and tenth died after arriving at the hospital.

The number of individuals who had already been taken from the trailer is unknown. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus stated, “Checking the video, there were a number of vehicles that came and picked up other people who were in that trailer.”

These individuals–all of whom were between the ages of 15 and 40–were victims of human trafficking. An investigation is underway to confirm the nationalities of these individuals, but it is suspected they may be immigrants entering from Mexico. The origin of the truck is still undetermined.

This isn’t the first time in recent months that a similar situation has been discovered along the US/Mexico border. In fact, earlier this month, Border Patrol found 72 Latin Americans in a trailer and 44 other individuals in the same situation in June.

With the recent emphasis being placed on reducing the number of immigrants living in the country illegally, raids on suspected illegal immigrants have become more frequent. These are the same policies making it more likely to make it more difficult to prevent, identify, and stop human trafficking. This is due to immigrants being fearful to approach law enforcement, despite San Antonio’s policy of not asking about the immigration status of those with whom they come in contact.

A vigil was held to honor the victims of this horrific tragedy. The Interfaith Welcome Coalition and RAICES were present alongside other agencies involved in immigrant rights and Daughters of Charity living in San Antonio.

Since hearing about this incident, I am deeply shocked about what I’ve read. How can we treat other human beings this way? These migrants were likely fleeing violence, gangs, and cartels in their countries of origin, desperate enough to be smuggled into the United States. Please join me in praying for them and their loved ones.

You can read more and keep up with the multiagency investigation here.

Modern Day Story of the Good Samaritan

“When the man walked in with fang marks on his leg, the volunteers knew the protocol: In the case of a rattlesnake bite, you call 911. But like all of the patients who end up here, his very presence in this desert clinic meant he had broken American law.”

This is an excerpt of an article written about a clinic in Arizona. Many of the clinic’s patients have entered America illegally. These medical professionals try to save lives without breaking the law.

In reading this article, the story of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 10:25-37) came to me. I was moved to tears and, at the same time, full of gratitude for the Good Samaritans serving in the desert at the American border.

I was also reminded of my recent visit to one of the shelters run by Daughters of Charity from Mexico at the Mexican-American border. There, I witnessed the hardships each migrant fleeing the Northern Triangle faces before reaching the United States border. During my time there, numerous adult men arrived after being deported and taken away from their families. It was just a heartbreaking experience!

Indeed, the lessons of the Good Samaritan are still of value today.

Instead of building a new wall–a larger wall to keep people out at the expense of billions of dollars–instead of allowing people to die of thirst and hunger in the desert; instead of letting people be exploited by those who charge them such high amounts to try to bring them across our border; instead of pushing them away…if we listen to the law of God in our hearts, would we not give up that indifference? Sometimes it’s even more than indifference. It’s xenophobia. We begin to hate these people and push them back when we should be accepting them.