The work of International Justice Mission and the Vatican's Joint Declaration Against Modern Slavery
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Orthodox, Anglican, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders at the Vatican’s Casino Pio IV, to sign a joint declaration of religious leaders against modern slavery. The historic event, which coincided with the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery,
was sponsored by the Global Freedom Network together with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. At the meeting, Pope Francis was joined by major religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby; Jewish Rabbis Abraham Skorka and David Rosen; and several Muslim leaders, including the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi.
In his address at Tuesday’s gatherering, the Pope said that: "The physical, economic, sexual and psychological exploitation of men and women, boys and girls, currently enslaves tens of millions of people in inhumanity and humiliation….
This crime ‘against humanity’," he said, "claims its victims through prostitution, human trafficking, forced labor, slave labor, organ trafficking, drug use, and child labor…. and the worst thing is that this situation is regrettably growing worse every day."
Individuals who fight modern slavery around the globe were invited to participate in Tuesday’s event. Among them was Gary Haugen, President and CEO of International Justice Mission. Haugen is a former prosecutor at the US Department of Justice. In 1994, he served as the Director of the Genocide Investigation in Rwanda. Thereafter he left the Department of Justice to found IJM, which protects and rescues the poor and vulnerable from the brutality of slavery, forced labor, and human trafficking.
Following the signing of the Joint Declaration, Aleteia’s Rome correspondent sat down with Gary Haugen to discuss IJM’s purpose, their undercover work to eradicate human trafficking, and the importance of Tuesday’s Joint Declaration.
You’ve come to the Vatican as the President and CEO of International Justice Mission. Tell us about IJM, and what you consider to be the significane of the signing of a Common Declaration against human slavery by Pope Francis and representatives of the major world religions.
International Justice Mission is an international organization that protects the poor from violence. We do that by rescuing victims, by bringing the criminals to justice, by restoring the survivors to strength and resilience, and then we also work with local law enforcement to actually effectively protect the poor from violence.
We have about 20 offices around the world, and about 700 full-time staff. The staff are local, indigenous lawyers, criminal investigators, social workers, and we take on cases of violence against common poor people. So we provide direct service in those cases. What we end up doing is trying to rescue them out of that abuse and then make sure that the criminals are brought to justice. In the process, we walk thousands of these cases through the criminal justice system to make sure that justice is done. Then we work to provide aftercare to restore victims.
The largest category of work that we do is human trafficking, because that is the massive category of violence against poor people. Human trafficking specifically targets poor people. Trafficking and slavery is completely against the law, so who can you abuse in that way and get away with it? Poor people. So in IJM’s work of protecting the poor from violence we’ve ended up working with thousands and thousands of cases of modern slavery, and we’ve been doing this for 18 years.
How massive of a problem is human trafficking?
This is the thing that was so important about today’s event. It hopefully will raise to the world’s consciousness that there is a massive problem of slavery in the world today. There are actually more people in slavery today than in any other time in human history. It’s estimated that there are about 35 million people held in slavery in the world today. The Global Slavery Index just came out last month, which is the annual authoritative estimate on slavery, and their estimate is 35 million. That’s more people than were extracted from Africa during 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade. So it’s true that a smaller proportion of people are in slavery than ever, so that’s good news. A smaller portion of the world’s economy operates on slavery, that’s good news. But in absolute numbers there are more people in slavery today than any other time.
So today was so important because nothing will change until the world at least wakes up to the problem of modern day slavery, and to its magnitude but also to its brutality. The way that Pope Francis characterizes it as a crime against humanity — when you get really close to it, that’s what you find, that it’s the most horrendous destruction of human dignity, that one person by violence would own and control another person for their profit.
Do you work in North Africa, and is the slave trade still legal in any of the Islamic countries in that region?
No, we don’t work in North Africa. And actually, the slave trade is prohibited in every country, even Mauritania, the country that was last to forbid slavery. It’s now illegal. The problem overwhelmingly in the world is not the laws. The problem is the lack of law enforcement. In South Asia, for instance, there are more than 15 million people in slavery, but last year, for instance, in India, there were only 13 convictions. That just means that currently in South Asia there is about one conviction for every million persons held in slavery.
So the problem is not that it’s not against the law. The problem is that those laws are not enforced specifically for poor people. And this is the larger problem in our world today, not that the poor don’t get law, but that they don’t get law enforcement. We are so used to thinking about this as a problem where we need to bring new legislation or change laws, and there is tinkering with laws that needs to be done. But overwhelmingly this is a problem of lack of law enforcement.
Has your organization had any contact with women sold into slavery by ISIS or other terrorist groups?
No, we have not. But what they go through is the same thing that millions of women and girls experience around the world who are sold into forced prostitution. UNICEF estimates that there are somewhere between three and four million children held illegally in forced prostitution. At IJM, we’ve met and brought rescue to thousands of them. And it’s as ugly as you can imagine. They’re usually tricked from their rural province. Traffickers will go to poor rural areas. They will entice people to leave their home, usually a young girl, a teenage girl, to leave her home and her village with the promise of a job, sometimes education. Then they’ll pass them from one trafficker to another until they’re completely separated from their family and their community. And then they just disappear into the trafficking networks and are sold into brothels.
So we’ve worked to rescue thousands of these girls who’ve been tricked with some sort of story that separates them from their family and community, because then there’s no one to protect them. And because local law enforcement is not going to protect them, they’re not going to proactively try and search out those places. In fact, frequently they’re protecting those places. The only reason that you have massive sex trafficking in the world is because local law enforcement is protecting it. Because if you think about it, the customers for sex trafficking can find the victims whenever they want. So that means the police could find them whenever they want, so how do you possibly get away with it? You get away with it by bringing the police into the business. And so human trafficking thrives in the world, because law enforcement doesn’t enforce the law, and the reason they don’t enforce the law substantially is because they’ve been taken into the business.
As you note, police corruption plays a significant role in many parts of the world—from Southeast Asia to India and Latin America—in enabling sexual trafficking. International Justice Mission, by calling attention to the lack of action on the part of local police, often embarrasses local authorities into taking action. What other means does IJM use to effect a long term solution to slavery and human trafficking?
IJM tries as much as possible not to embarrass the local law enforcement because we’re trying to build a constructive partnership with them. What they do know is that they may face embarrassment if they don’t address the problem. But what we do is work in partnership with local enforcement and go to them and say, “We’re not here to embarrass you; we’d actually like to assist you to do the job more effectively.” And we’ve trained tens of thousands of law enforcement officials to be able to do this job accurately.
In fact, we’ve even worked in specific cities where, over a number of years, we can transform the way that law enforcement works so that it actually enforces the law. Then we can measure the decrease in the amount of human trafficking. In one project we did in the second largest city in the Philippines, called Cebu, they had a terrible problem of sex trafficking of kids. And the Gates Foundation gave us money to try to see whether or not it was possible to stand up local law enforcement, get them to switch sides, so they actually enforce the law, and then measure if that actually decreases the amount of sex trafficking.
The goal of that project over a four year period of time was to see if fixing local law enforcement would actually reduce the sex trafficking of kids by 20 percent. After four years of setting up specialized units, effectively sending about 100 sex traffickers to jail, we saw sex trafficking reduced by 79 percent over a four year period of time. That’s an 80 percent reduction of sex trafficking of kids in only four years by simply turning around law enforcement, getting it to switch sides so that it’s protecting the kids instead of protecting the sex traffickers.
And that’s the great hope from what we’ve seen. Sex trafficking is the ugliest, but the most preventable manmade disaster going on in the world. As soon as you get law enforcement to switch sides, these traffickers are not brave. When they see there’s a high risk of them going to jail, they just leave the kids alone.
Many people working in IJM have a law enforcement background and others with criminal justice experience. How does IJM find its recruits? What special training do its volunteers go through in order to prepare them the work?
To be clear, the vast majority of our staff are local nationals. More than 95 percent of our staff work in their own communities. There are a few expatriates that do come in with specialized training, and they help train and equip those local teams to be able to do the work. So they come with highly developed criminal investigative skills, legal prosecution skills, law enforcement training skills, and they then help empower those local teams. But this is a very local fight in the developing world. To make sure that your justice system works is something that the community itself must own. So IJM’s teams around the world are local heroes who are seeking to make sure that law enforcement is actually enforcing the law, and protects common poor people from this kind of violence. So it’s not so much that IJM has to come in with some sort of outside morality or some kind of foreign presence, but it’s more a matter of equipping local champions to be able to bring about law enforcement for their own people.
How does IJM reach out to workers and volunteers in sexual trafficking hot spots in order to recruit indigenous personnel?
Number one, we visit and connect with all the local organizations that are already engaged in one way or another. Many times they are community organizations, faith-based groups, or other volunteer organizations that are already trying to deal with the problem. Frequently, what we do is to pull together a team that can work full time to actually address the problem in the community. So first of all, it’s raising awareness of the problem. But not only that, but also introducing models of hope to be able, for instance, to tell the story of that transformation that took place in that Philippine city. Telling that story gives hope to the people who are engaging in the problem in their community but may not be fully equipped to finish the fight, so we come along with resources and training and models and methodologies and actually make it possible for them to prevail.
How dangerous is your work? How often do IJM workers experience reprisals in one form or another?
It’s very dangerous work. Our investigators especially are constantly infiltrating violent criminal rings. Slavery is about violence. It’s labor that is compelled and forced by violence, and sometimes it’s very brutal violence. So we have to be willing to take those risks, but it’s also a matter of bringing professional care and experience to bear, so that you’re doing it as wisely and carefully as possible. Our staff have been kidnapped, they’ve been beaten, they’ve been held at knife-point. They’ve been held at gun-point. They’ve had their lives threatened. But you can also see why we’re an organization of prayer as well. Because we believe that there’s a God of justice who goes with us in doing this work, and so the teams not only bring to bear their professional capacity to deal with violent situations but they also bring a sense of faith. But number one, the people who are being victimized in human trafficking are not running a risk of being hurt today. They’re going to face a certainty of being hurt today. The question is: what risk are we willing to take today to make sure that that certainty of violence does not come true for that child, that woman, that family. So that’s what our teams do every day.
Is the work of IJM inhibited by advocacy groups that consider prostitution "empowering?" There’s a lot more sentiment on the side of providing "sex workers" with better working conditions and other safeguards than most people would be ready to believe. In fact, a number of major NGOs are said to take this position. Doesn’t this foster the idea in society that prostitution is "not so bad" and that those who are sexually trafficked are only victimized in being made into sex workers against their will?
We actually try to find common ground with even those who are supportive of commercial sex workers to say: but can we not agree that those who are being forced into this should be released from that, and the people who do violently force other people into doing that should be brought to justice. We think there’s a very broad common ground from that. There’s real disagreement about prostitution, whether it should be legalized and regulated. But I think we can all agree that those who are being violently forced into it need to be rescued out. They need to be provided with a secure future, and those who prey upon the poor and abuse them in these ways need to go to jail. So we’re focused on finding common ground.
The caste system in India—and class systems elsewhere, as well as prejudices against minority religious groups—greatly abets the practice of forced labor. How does IJM work to liberate those victimized by forced labor in societies where whole classes of people are thought of as disposable? Can we act upon the Gospel without simultaneously bringing into question false societal norms, many of them rooted in other religions?
I do think the Gospel is a radical story of human dignity that applies to everybody. It is true that caste systems, systems of racism, discrimination against religious and other minorities facilitates slavery, but it facilitates it in two ways. One way we’re familiar with, which is that the slaver and the trafficker is more comfortable abusing that person because they think they’re somehow subhuman. But what makes it possible for the trafficker to get away with that? It’s the idea within law enforcement that that person does not merit protection. That that victim is somehow subhuman, that doesn’t need to be protected as that police officer’s own daughter deserves protection, the way that judge’s own family would need protection. And so the primary reason that the caste system, the discrimination against racial and ethnic and religious minorities manifests itself in increased vulnerability to slavery is because those systems of prejudice and discrimination decrease the likelihood that law enforcement will ever bring to justice a person who abuses those marginalized people.
So the traffickers and the slave owners know what they are doing. They’re looking for the people in society who are least likely to have the power of the law brought to bear on their behalf. So, then they find and isolate those communities and they take them into slavery. Slavery exists because certain people are viewed as outside the circle of deserving the protection of the law because they’re somehow less than the rest of us. And the powerful thing about Pope Francis’s championing of the agenda to fight slavery is it’s an affirmation that Christ made, that the Christian Gospel affirms, which is the basic dignity and image of God that is borne by every human being, and therefore deserves the same sort of vigorous protection and justice that all of us would want.
Can you tell us more about IJM’s undercover investigative work?
In sex trafficking, for instance, we have trained investigators who develop networks of informants and operatives who provide all kinds of information and leads about people who are held in forced prostitution. They will conduct a technical undercover investigation that produces all the evidence that law enforcement then needs to take action. Likewise that’s true for forced labor, where teams will infiltrate brick factories or rice mills, gather testimonials and physical and other evidence of the slavery actually taking place, because that is the powerful material that then moves law enforcement to act and makes it almost impossible for them not to act. In the end, then it is also the material that will help in bringing the traffickers and the slave owners to justice. We believe that’s absolutely critical. If you don’t bring the perpetrators to justice they will just victimize and enslave others. And you’ll also send out a signal that it’s acceptable to do that. Therefore a high priority for us is to be able to do the investigative work that mobilizes rescue but also brings the criminals to justice.
Has there been a significant increase of human trafficking in the US with the lack of vigilance on the US borders?
It’s hard to speak of increase since quantitative baselines haven’t been established for past years. What we do find is that law enforcement in central America has created a tremendous state of lawlessness for the poor. Their children are now unsafe from sexual violence, from robbery, from assault and murder, from gangs, and that violence is sending many, many to the borders of the United States seeking a better life. Many of those are going to be exploited because they’re trying to stay under the radar in the United States. And they will be under the radar and exploited in the commercial sex industry or in agriculture or manufacturing settings where they are not paid, where they are abused. But they don’t know where to turn because they are in the country in an undocumented way. So this is a tremendous vulnerability which needs to be addressed in the United States with immigration reform. But it also needs to be addressed in Central America in addressing the fundamental brokenness of law enforcement in those countries.
What led you to this work?
I used to be a former prosecutor at the US Department of Justice, mostly dealing with police abuse and misconduct in the United States. In 1994, I was the Director of the Genocide Investigation in Rwanda. I got further exposure of the kind of violence that poor people face in the developing world and left my job at the Department of Justice and with some friends became employee number one of International Justice Mission 18 years ago. And, over time, we found that the most powerful thing we could do is support local champions in the developing world who are seeking to bring protection and justice for those who are weakest in their own communities.
Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.