Episcopal church leaders called attention to the pervasive problem of human trafficking this week during a church-wide forum led by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
There are twice as many people in bondage today than at the height of the slave trade, said Schori at a panel discussion Wednesday that coincided with the 57th annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
An estimated 27 million people worldwide are victims of trafficking, according to the U.S. Dept. of State.
The vast majority of those enslaved, 80 percent, are women and girls, noted Schori. Examining how trafficking is linked to violence against women and girls, she pointed out that they are caught in forced labor, forced marriages, the making of pornography and harvesting of organs.
Christians are "charged to care for the sojourners in our midst," said Schori, who led the hour-long discussion.
The Presiding Bishop urged Episcopalians to reduce demand for the products of slave labor, including coffee, smart phones, and cotton clothing. Another panelist, Rev. Brian McVey of the Diocese of Iowa, called on Episcopalians to reduce demand for commercial sex and pornography.
Sarah Dreier, the church's legislative representative for international policy and advocacy, said the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act helped to renew trafficking laws that increases screening for potential victims at airports and grants temporary immigration status to victims.
Drier also said the Church must advocate for stronger federal and state laws aimed at "protection, prevention, and prosecution" in human trafficking. She said 49 states have human trafficking laws, while 39 states are advocating for stronger laws.
At the beginning of the Lent season, the Episcopal Church's public policy arm challenged members to repent and change the culture of violence against women.
The Episcopal Church passed a resolution at its triennial General Convention last year recommitting itself to the fight against human trafficking.
The following is Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori's address:
Human Trafficking: A Churchwide Conversation
March 6, 2013
Chapel of Christ the Lord, New York
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
Human trafficking is modern slavery. Today, around the world, 27 million persons are enslaved, in conditions of forced labor or sexual servitude. About 80% are women and girls.
At the height of the 19th century transatlantic slave trade, about 10 million persons were enslaved. Today there are more than twice as many, even though slavery is illegal everywhere.
Human trafficking is defined by the use of force, fraud, or coercion. It may or may not include transporting a victim, physical force or abuse, but it always involves threat and the loss of freedom. Trafficked persons are women and men, girls and boys, foreigners, immigrants, and citizens – all of whom have been forced or tricked into working for another person's profit. That stolen profit amounts to $32 billion annually, second only to global drug-running. Half of slavery profits are realized in the industrialized nations of the world. This criminal activity is driven by cheap prices for human beings, impunity, and easy profits.
Trafficking is a fundamental act of violence against the dignity of human beings made in the image of God. Their labor, creativity, personal integrity and safety, and their ability to choose are stolen from them for someone else's use. As descendants of Moses and Abraham, we are charged to care for the sojourners in our midst, remembering that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt.
Sexual exploitation accounts for 60-80% of all trafficking reports. While other forms of trafficking are likely under-reported, they include forced labor, debt bondage, forced marriage, domestic servitude, the harvesting of organs, and the use of children as soldiers, beggars, and sexual commodities. Infants and children are also trafficked for adoption, and for the production of pornography.
Labor or debt slaves include some 12 million persons worldwide, primarily in Asia and Africa, though there are certainly some in the United States. Of those, 2.5 million are enslaved by governments or rebel military forces. The rest are in bondage to private persons and entities, working in mines, sweatshops, fisheries, agriculture, homes, and restaurants. An average slave's labor brings the "owner" a profit of tens of thousands of dollars annually.
Every year about 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders. Half are children. About 80% are female. In Asia, girls are sold by parents who cannot feed all their children, even knowing that their children's intended labor in restaurants or factories is likely a sham. They end up in brothels, bars, and massage parlors, to be used and abused by adult males, many of whom are quaintly called "tourists." Nearly 2 million children, including a smaller percentage of boys, are enslaved as sexual commodities around the globe. Nearly every country in the world is involved in trafficking in some way. Asia sends victims to the greatest number of other countries; Europe receives trafficked human beings from the most source nations.
Around 15,000 persons are trafficked into the United States every year, nearly half of whom work in the sex industry. A quarter are in domestic service as housekeepers and child care workers, and 10% in agriculture. Another 240,000 American children have already been tricked or coerced into the sex industry. Girls are induced into this form of slavery at an average age of 12.8 years; boys are even younger.
There are several effective ways in which we can respond to human trafficking, including reducing demand for the products of slave labor. Almost all of us buy items involving forced labor – coffee, smart phones, cotton clothing. We can also work to reduce demand for commercial sex – Super Bowl weekend is deemed the largest annual trafficking incident in the U.S. We can also increase enforcement of anti-slavery and trafficking laws. There is good news in the growing legal ability to prosecute traffickers across the globe, yet there is also abundant room for greater willingness to do it effectively. All such responses depend on increased awareness about inhuman practices. We can help to set the prisoners free and deliver today's slaves from oppression and bondage if we're willing to learn and respond.
We will explore some of those responses in the rest of this program. Perhaps the most basic concerns the image of God and how we receive or encounter someone caught in slavery. Can we befriend, welcome, and accompany a person who has been so abused, in the same way we'd welcome the Crucified One or the Suffering Servant? Trafficked persons are often imprisoned by shame and rejected by the wider community. They are also traumatized by their dehumanization. Building relationships is the first step in healing the outcast and caring for someone who has been treated as less than human. When Jesus charged his followers to care for the "least of these" he certainly included the trafficked.
Human trafficking, modern slavery, is one of the most pervasive kinds of violence against women and girls here and around the globe. The good news is that people of faith are responding to this violence. President Obama named a group of religious and community leaders, who have chosen human trafficking as a central issue where public-private partnership can make a real difference. This afternoon you will hear more about how The Episcopal Church continues to expand awareness, ministry, policy, and advocacy with local and national governments. Our final speaker will put this work in context around the Anglican Communion, and then we'll open a broader conversation with those in attendance here and in cyberspace.
Violence, particularly against women, continues to haunt our world. It is possible to change attitudes. Liberia radically reduced the post-civil war violence through roadside signs with pictures of injured and violated women with captions like, Is this your mother? or She could be your sister!
The slaves of this world are our sisters and brothers, and their mothers. Jesus announced his work this way: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  That work is ours as well. Learn to recognize the signs of trafficking, how to respond, and then act. May we be able to say in our own day, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."