By Laura Sheahen
This is Part 2 of a two-part article on human trafficking. To find out more about how trafficking works, see Part 1.
“We’re cleaning up the mess left by traffickers.” Sr. Estrella Castalone is speaking to a group that fights the buying and selling of human beings. But it’s only half the story. The group, COATNET, also prevents tragedy by warning at-risk people about trafficking.
Throughout the world, criminals exploit poor or desperate people. Traffickers offer them jobs that don’t exist and take them from their homes before selling them into unpaid prostitution, beggary, or forced labour.
Caritas Internationalis hosts COATNET (Christian Organisations Against Trafficking in Human Beings). Its members share information about how traffickers operate—and how to save the people they trap.
Traffickers often force women into prostitution and then blackmail them, threatening to tell their families about their lifestyles if the women try to escape. In some cases, “they’re controlled by the messages on their cell phones,” says Sr. Maura O’Donohue, talking about women who are trafficked to the UK. The traffickers send text messages to tell women where their next “appointment” is.
In other cases, young women are locked in brothels. If they can get hold of a cell phone, a Caritas hotline may be the number they’ll dial. “When we get a call on the hotline, we ask, ‘Do you have your passport with you? Describe the house you’re in—can you escape?’” says Jindriska Krpalkova of Caritas Prague. There, Caritas has 40 shelters for women and children.
When girls do get out, Caritas is there to care for them. “There was a Czech girl who’d been trafficked to a brothel in the UK. She escaped,” says Krpalkova. “IOM (the International Organisation for Migration) helped her get to Prague, and we went to the airport to meet her. She went to our shelter and spent a few days with us before going home.”
COATNET members have become go-to people for victims and law enforcement. “A 16-year-old girl who’d been trafficked to a seaside town in Bulgaria saw my name on the internet and called me,” says Joana Terzieva of Caritas Ruse-Bulgaria. “I called the police and they put her in a shelter.”
In many countries, the police work with COATNET members to identify traffickers and save potential victims. “I was invited by the military police to give tips,” says Ivonne van de Kar, who is part of the Dutch Foundation of Religious Against Trafficking in Women. She explains that sometimes a trafficker will take a group of young women into another country. “We tell the police, ‘Trust your instincts. For example, if you see a group of people traveling, is one person dressed differently, in fancier clothes? Is that person the only one who speaks the language or knows what country they’re in?’”
When police arrest traffickers and victims agree to testify, some Caritas groups help survivors through the difficult and lengthy process of prosecution. “A Ukrainian girl escaped a brothel in a Czech town,” sayd Krpalkova. “She said she’d testify against the brothel owner, but the investigation and court case took years.”
When threatening human traffickers in public campaigns, “don’t tell them ‘You’ll go to prison,’ says Baerbel Uhl of La Strada, another anti-trafficking organisation. “Tell them, ‘All your money will be confiscated,’” she says.
To raise awareness and to prevent young men from exploiting victims, van de Kar’s group reaches out to high school students.
“We produced a film called ‘Anna,’” she says. It describes a young woman’s life in prostitution after being trafficked from her home country. “We show the film in schools and the boys get very quiet. The girls are shocked. Their attitudes really change,” says van de Kar.
“The Dutch police use our film, it works really well,” she continues. “The awareness raising has worked. We’ve seen trafficking story lines in popular soap operas, for example.”
When COATNET members contact each other across countries and continents, they can respond to the ever-evolving tactics of traffickers. Because they are working in poor communities, they are closest to the people at risk.
Sr Castalone coordinates Talitha Kum, an international network of Catholic religious sisters who combat trafficking. “When IOM [International Organisation for Migration] cannot find a trafficked victim, they call the sisters,” she says. “They ask, ‘Do you have a convent in such-and-such area?’”
“In many parts of Africa, children work in mines,” says Omar Mahamoud of Friends of Suffering Humanity, a COATNET member based in Ghana. “Here they’re called ‘head porters’ because they carry stones on their head—sometimes more than they weigh themselves.” FSH runs a home for exploited children and contacts their parents. “We’ve rescued a lot of children,” says Omar Mahamoud of FSH.
In Sri Lanka, employment agents arrange for women to go as maids to Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. The women do work as maids, but sometimes receive no pay, are beaten, and are locked inside houses or apartments. Their passports are taken and they are unable to escape.
Caritas Sri Lanka advises potential migrants to keep copies of their passports and have emergency numbers with them. In Beirut, the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center encourages families to treat their foreign housemaids well. The Migrant Center identifies abused maids, shelters them when they escape, and provides legal help. If Sri Lankan maids abused in the Middle East decide to return home, Caritas Sri Lanka offers income-generation programmes so women can start their own home-based businesses.
Vulnerable people are being saved from exploitation, and often from being trafficked in the first place. “A girl called our ‘Magda’ hotline and said, ‘I am going abroad. I have a copy of my passport, my mom knows what I’ll be doing,” says Krpalkova. “I think this is a good result.”
Sr Castalone agrees. “When people start asking you for help, you know they’re aware of your organisation—and that you make a difference.”
Laura Sheahen is a Communications Officer for Caritas Internationalis