protect victims of the sex trade
BY CHRISTINA FARRELL
THE BISHOPS of England and Wales are calling for asylum to be granted to the victims of sex trafficking, arguing that thousands of women are being coerced into sexual exploitation and slave labour.
The bishops insist that existing British legislation provides little or no protection to people who have been forced into a life of slavery— " an offence to the dignity and integrity of human beings".
Under existing United Kingdom immigration laws the victims of sex trafficking are regarded simply as illegal immigrants and are required to leave the country. But campaigners say that, in many instances, women are being returned to the pimps and gang leaders that trafficked them in the first instance and that their lives could be in danger.
The bishops want the Government to sign up to the Council of Europe's Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings which would automatically give vidims a "right to remain" for 30 days while cases are assessed.
The convention also guarantees basic support, including emergency medical assistance, safe housing and legal advice. The proposal has the backing of Amnesty International , Catholic women's groups and the anti-slavery lobby in Britain. Fifteen out of the 25 member states of the European Union have already signed up.
Speaking at a press confer
ence in London on Monday John Joseet. secretary to the bishops' office for refugees, said the Church recognised that the system could be open to abuse — that people could falsely claim to have been trafficked — but he said human rights took priority.
"The Palermo Protocol allows governments to provide support for victims of trafficking but they can wriggle out of it," he explained. 'The European convention is far more restrictive. Victims of trafficking must be allowed the opportunity to seek asylum.
"This terrifies the British Government because their argument would be that some people will abuse the system."
Mr Joseet acknowledged that there was tension "between those who argue that there is a likelihood of abuse and those in the Home Office. as well as the police, who are strongly supportive of the victims of trafficking".
However, he said that the bishops' support for the proposal would be a strong signal to the Government that it should keep to its intention to sign.
"There is a momentum which the Government cannot move away from," he conunented.
Home Office statistics reveal that 1,420 women were the victims of sex trafficking in Britain in 2000. But Government and police sources say that the problem is growing and an urgent public consultation has now been launched on a national action plan.
Mgr Andrew Summersgill. general secretary to the bishops' conference, confirmed that incidents of trafficking and abuse of migrant workers had been reported by the bishops in their own dioceses, with Westminster, Southwark and Portsmouth particularly affected."What's going on is really quite horrifying," he said.
Angela Perkins, spokeswoman for the National Board of Catholic Women, told the Herald that while she "applauded" the bishops' support for the convention, the Church was already helping victims.
"The truth is that there are many amazing people, priests and religious, working with these women," she said.
"Sister Imelda Poole IBVM has been in Albania — one of the major centres for trafficking — to educate women and rehabilitate some of those who have returned home. Sister Ann Teresa has done fantastic work in the south of England.
"The women forced into prostitution are enslaved with no dignity and often, when they return home, they are shunned because of what has happened to them. "What they need is time to recover, to reclaim their humanity. They have been desensitised by appalling cruelty."
She added: "I applaud what the bishops have done. We took our concerns to them and they have listened."
The Home Office currently funds just one care and accommodation centre for trafficked women which provides 25 bed spaces. There is still no safe house for children that have been trafficked.
Fr Des Connolly, a Montfort Missionary and parish priest in Hampshire, said the need for safe houses was now acute. A founding trustee of the Medaille Trust — which comprises representatives from religious congregations working specifically with the
victims of trafficking — he has witnessed the effects of enforced slavery.
Fr Connolly has asked the bishops for £25 a month from every parish in the country to fund three houses in the Southampton area for the tehabilitation of victims. To date, his proposal has not been accepted.
"In many ways the bishops are playing catch-up," he said. "The religious in this country have already come together and are trying to make a difference. It was ever thus.
"We need funding. This is the world we are living in. We are Catholics and we have to do something. This is the true work of the Church. The prophetic voice is coming from those who work on the margins!"
The English and Welsh bishops are also understood to have made representations to their German counterparts over the building of mass brothels adjacent to the World Cup stadium in Berlin.
Sex cubicles have been built to cater for more than 650 "clients" a day. The proximity of Germany to Eastern Europe makes it particularly vulnerable to the international pimps and prostitute gangs.
Ms Perkins said the importation of prostitution to one of the greatest sporting spectacles in the world would only encourage sex traffickers.
She said: "What is being sold at the World Cup is the idea that women can be exploited and traded for sex. This is fundamentally against the teaching of the Church,"