'Our Church has seen the suffering caused by human trafficking – we fight it on the front line'

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I first became really aware of modern slavery in 2012, when I heard Sophie Hayes (a victim of trafficking who wrote a bestselling book about her experiences) speak.

I was amazed she was English, and had been taken to Italy to work as a sex slave. It questioned all the preconceptions I had that human trafficking was a problem elsewhere, an issue in other countries. After that, I became aware of what a hub for human trafficking London is, and it became even more imperative to understand it.

Then around the time of the London Olympics the police were looking to co-operate with some of the religious sisters. Around big sporting events a sex industry always moves in and women who are virtually enslaved are imported. I noticed that religious sisters were doing a lot of the frontline work supporting these women.

Later we had a public meeting about trafficking and a lot of Filipina women came. I realised the Catholic community, being so diversified in London, has contact with a lot of trafficked women.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols was amazed at first that Sophie Hayes was English (supplied)

Kevin Hyland, who was then at the Met [he is now the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner] came to us looking for co-operation. Many of the sisters were not inclined to co-operate. The police tended to prosecute people we’d now recognise as having been trafficked, so Kevin had to work hard to convince them that his interest was not in prosecution.

Gradually a partnership was built, based on getting awareness, education and responsiveness around different communities. It was clear the co-operation between the resources of the Catholic Church and the police was a fruitful one. 

We spoke to bishops and police chiefs in other countries and this initiative — started in London and called the Santa Marta Group — began to spread. At our first meeting, in 2014, Pope Francis came, along with police forces from 20 nations. At our most recent meeting last year, there were over 30 police chiefs.

Pope Francis has been a very important figure in this. He’s worked with modern slaves for more than 30 years so has a long awareness of it. When he was interviewed about it he described modern slavery as a grievous wound in the body of humanity — and therefore for Catholics a wound in the body of Christ. He said the world needed to learn how to weep again; and from that we understand the need to act.

At the end of that first meeting I was standing next to him and he said: “You make sure this keeps going because this is far more use than most of the meetings I have to go to.” So with a mandate like that I am motivated, but at the heart of this are the victims of this cruel, cruel trade and we must always remember them and put them first.

How we will work to deliver change

During this investigation the Evening Standard will be working to deliver change by:

1  Helping to force the closure of businesses in London that use slave labour.

2  Working with companies to give survivors of slavery a second chance.

3  Encouraging our readers to report potential slavery cases to the right authorities.

4  Helping those trapped in slavery in London know where they can turn for help.

5  Campaigning for new policies and laws to crack down on slavery, wherever it occurs.

The Evening Standard has a unique reach. One hope for this investigation, and this think tank, is that we can help to alert all sectors — finance, business, government, media — as well as people in London and more widely, so we can help consolidate a response.

We need to let people know what to look for, how to report it and how they can avoid giving business to these criminals. A person’s dignity is tied up with their work. If work is demeaning or exploitative it eats away at the core of that person, and their human dignity. 

That is why I am pleased to be supported by the august people of this think tank. All of us need to work hard to help end this great scourge.

Help end slavery by visiting the Evening Standard’s action hub here.

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