loader image

Trafficking course opened my eyes to the real stories behind victims of evil trade

April 19, 2024

In 2019, Sr Francesca from the Religious of the Assumption was asked to join our community at St Mary’s University Twickenham and enrol on the MA course in Human Trafficking, Migration, and Organised Crime run by the Bakhita Centre for Research on Slavery, Exploitation and Abuse.

Sr Francesca writes: I had been interested in human trafficking and in issues surrounding migration for some time, and I had done some volunteering. Women religious have long been involved in the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery, notably by supporting victims, working along disempowered communities, and advocating for them. But more recently, Pope Francis has put a specific focus on this problem and on the many forms of extreme exploitation that are linked to it.

Calling it ‘a scourge against human dignity’, the Pope has not only contributed to raising awareness among Catholics – in 2015, for example, he introduced the World Day of Prayer and Reflection against Human Trafficking – but has also urged them to act against this evil, which, as the Holy Father points out, finds its origins in our broken human relationships and in the profound economic inequalities and exploitative relationships that are so deeply entrenched in our world order, both at the local and at the global level.

The Bakhita Centre is a leading research centre for the study of modern slavery. Its work focusses on applied research aimed at informing practice and influencing policy making around issues of slavery, exploitation, and human trafficking. Established in 2015, the Centre is itself the answer of a Catholic educational institution to the call to action of the Pope.

The MA programme in Human Trafficking, Migration and Organised Crime attracts students from all over the world because of its unique focus, addressing not only the problems linked to our contemporary migration policies, but also specifically the issues of human trafficking and modern slavery. The subjects included range from the international policy framework around migration and human trafficking, to their representation in the media, the issues surrounding a human rights approach to migration and the provision of care for survivors.

The internationality of the students and the diversity of their backgrounds and professional experience was probably the first element that enriched me both intellectually and from a human point of view. The programme itself opened my understanding of human trafficking and modern slavery and challenged received ideas, especially concerning rigid distinctions between victims and perpetrators. It opened my eyes to the complexities of a problem that is highly politicised, frequently presented in an oversimplified and overly emotional manner by the media, and persistently reduced by policy makers to a criminal and law enforcement problem, rather than problems rooted in poverty and social injustice, as the Pope correctly points out.

The topics covered allow students to gain an understanding of the legal framework surrounding human trafficking and modern slavery and reflect, whenever possible, on the limitations inherent in the current law enforcement approach and criminalisation of migration. Finally, the programme allows learners to appreciate the difficulties surrounding the identification and care of victims and students are invited to reflect, whenever possible, on their own personal practice and past experiences.

In line with the Catholic values and ethos of St Mary’s University, the Bakhita Centre is not just a place of academic learning but seeks to offer its students opportunities to engage and put their knowledge at the service of the wider community.

The Horizons Summer School is one of the projects currently supported by the centre, giving students a chance to volunteer as tutors to support a group of women survivors through an eight-week learning programme. The women are all on their journey to recovery from the scars and trauma caused by the exploitation to which they were subjected. The Summer School gives them an opportunity to develop their skills and employability but also, more importantly, to (re)-connect with themselves and with others, creating much needed positive relationships and a support network. The programme includes courses on IT, English, cooking, nutrition, and also physical activities such as yoga and Pilates to reconnect the body and learn to care for it. Finally, drama and creative writing help survivors to re-connect with their emotions and find ways to express them. The role of the volunteer tutors is to accompany the women during the programme, supporting their learning, encouraging them to express themselves and trying to create, over the space of a few weeks, a simple life-giving relationship of trust. What struck me about this experience was the commitment of each woman to the programme. There was a sense of solidarity and mutual care and support, and moreover, visible gratitude for the help received.

Finally, the Bakhita Centre supports and collaborates with Caritas Bakhita House, a project of the diocese of Westminster, run by Caritas. Bakhita House is a safehouse for female victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. It offers holistic support to extremely vulnerable women who are in the process of rebuilding their lives after suffering different forms of abuse and traumatising experiences. The work is underpinned by principles drawn from the Catholic faith: compassionate support and long-term commitment, respect for the dignity of each person, the creation of a community that may nurture a sense of rootedness and belonging, and the importance of spirituality.

I have now been working part-time for about a year at Bakhita House, alongside the support workers, therapists, volunteers and, of course, the guests. What I find most special about this project is that people who have experienced the worse forms of betrayal and the breakdown of all healthy human relationships can rebuild their life and their trust in humanity. They are able to find a sense of community and belonging and even, quoting the words of an ex-guest, ‘discover a kind of love that most [of them] did not know existed’.