Modern Slavery: Engaging Religious Actors

By: Katherine Marshall

February 9, 2017

Global Justice Blog, February 9, 2017

A current estimate that there are up to 46 million “modern slaves” suggests that more human beings are enslaved today than at any point in human history. The dramatic and persisting fact of modern slavery was the impetus for a Forum in Istanbul on February 6-7, at the invitation of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. He and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, agreed in late 2015 to give a special, common focus to the issue, with a view to mobilizing the Orthodox and Anglican communities worldwide to action. A result was this day-long meeting. It culminated in the two leaders signing a joint declaration that included promises of action and established a Task Force to make concrete follow up recommendations.

The Istanbul Forum brought together about 60 people, most from the Orthodox and Anglican communities but also some scholars and practitioners. They included Kevin Ryland, a former police officer who is now the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, representatives from the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, and a representative of the Presidency of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Turkey. 

The day explored and highlighted the responsibilities and assets that religious leaders and communities can bring to a complex global problem like modern slavery. Positively, the moral imperative to address slavery was framed in a history of advocacy and action, with references to William Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement. The Patriarch and the Archbishop also made calls to repentance, with the theme of sins “before our eyes,” visible but not acted upon, and a painful recognition that churches can be seen as more concerned with liturgy and the next world than the pain and suffering of people in the here and now. But above all the effort was framed in a resounding call to action to protect human dignity and meet the pain of those who are most vulnerable, especially women and children. There was frequent reference to protecting human rights and the essential equality of all people, as created in the image of God. 

The complexity of the problem of modern slavery emerged clearly from the wide diversity of examples and stories that the Patriarch, the Archbishop, and other speakers recounted. There was no rigorous effort to define or quantify slavery and the cases ranged far and wide. The most vivid examples and a focus of attention were human trafficking and sexual slavery. It was here that “sins before our eyes” were most often evoked, with calls on religious communities to look for, see, and act to help affected people in their communities. Look more carefully, the Archbishop admonished, at who is at the car wash, the nail salon, or other service sites. But the event, which benefitted from the leadership and active participation of two of the world’s most respected religious leaders, linked the global challenges, including the lure of profits and involvement of huge criminal networks to the faces and lives of the individuals who are affected and our collective responsibility to them. 

But the global crisis of refugees and migrants was highlighted as a special source of vulnerability and thus responsibility. The instinct to “pull up the drawbridge” against migrants and refugees must be countered with a generosity of spirit that is the essence of Biblical teaching. The near to hand examples from Turkey and Greece show the special vulnerability of people whose lives are shattered and who are on the move. The fact of thousands of children are simply missing should pique consciences to action. 

Domestic service was seen as a critical issue, with somewhat less clarity as to what action might be involved. And consumers have a responsibility to beware the temptation to look always for bargains and cheap prices, without considering the supply chain that often leads to bonded labor. Here the “globalization of indifference” that Pope Francis has highlighted was cited as a special call to action for church leaders and communities. 

A paradox cited was the vast knowledge and community commitment that church communities represent, set against dangers of looking to them as intelligence gatherers. The onus is on the communities to open their eyes and their hearts, and to act themselves on issues, at the community level. At the same time religious leaders can use a moral authority to advocate for action, linking the power of story to a grasp of both the complex causes of the problems that perpetuate modern slavery and the ways in which action can change the situation. 

The daunting complexity of the global problems suggest new and stronger alliances. The challenges of modern slavery are linked to every one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; one (8.7) deals expressly with modern slavery: “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.” The challenges of poverty, environmental degradation, inequality, economic failures, and above all conflict that are embedded in all 17 goals and 169 targets, each play a major part. Among important partnerships cited were between religious bodies and United Nations agencies, between religious communities and law enforcement bodies, and between human rights and religious advocates. There is a need to prevent at the same time as to punish perpetrators and to protect and support those affected, turning victims into survivors. 

The Patriarch and the Archbishop prayed for and insisted on the urgent need for churches to work together: “it is impossible for the Church to close its eyes to evil, to be indifferent to the cry of the needy, the oppressed and exploited.”

This blog post was originally published on the Global Justice Blog.

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