Three years ago police in Lancashire noticed that among an influx of Romanians was a man called Gabriel Razvan Ursu, a career criminal with convictions for theft, fraud and running prostitutes.
Brothels started to spring up in the east of the county and officers began to watch houses in Blackburn and Burnley which were being used by Ursu. After they discovered that he had travelled to Luton to collect a “new girl” from the airport they raided his Burnley terrace, and there they found Ursu with Maria.
There was not much else in the house. It was generally bare but for a bed laid out for sex, with wipes, condoms and so on. In fact, Maria had so few possessions that she was taken away wearing a scruffy tracksuit and a plastic bag – and she had absolutely no idea where she was. When she entered Britain she had become one of tens of thousands of trafficking victims believed to be at work in the UK.
She had been tricked into prostitution by an uncle and once in the hands of criminal gangs there was no escape. She was tattooed to designate her as property, moved between brothels in Germany and France, and was sometimes traded between gangs, once for just an iPhone with a cracked screen.
Her final handler, Ursu, was eventually jailed for three years by a judge in Preston Crown Court for running brothels and was to be extradited on release. Maria was also repatriated to Romania, where she received assistance from Christian groups working against the modern slave trade.
Indeed, Christians today are at the forefront of the fight against human trafficking in the same way that their predecessors once led the struggle against the trans-Atlantic slave trade some two centuries ago.
The extent of this has been revealed by the Arise Foundation, a secular anti-slavery charity based in London and New York, which collected and analysed data and concluded that if disparate Catholic religious congregations working in this field were taken together they would represent the largest front-line NGO against slavery in the world.
In its 2018 Threads of Solidarity report, Arise found that in the UK there are at least 172 religious, mostly Sisters, who work in rescue, prevention and advocacy, while a total of 16 religious congregations have provided 29 properties worth nearly £16.4 million to help trafficking victims.
Members of the Conference of Religious of England and Wales (CoREW) have also donated more than £10 million of their resources to fighting trafficking and helping victims within the last five years.
Speaking about the report in Manchester last week, Luke de Pulford, director of Arise, said: “About 90 per cent of the work we support is by Sisters around the world.”
“We are not a faith-based charity,” he continued. “We don’t support Sisters because they are Sisters or because they are Catholic, we support them because their work, we believe, is exemplary – it is good work.”
In the UK, such work can been seen in the efforts of Medaille Trust, an ecumenical charity with Catholic foundations which is today the country’s largest dedicated shelter charity for enslaved people, and in TRAC (Trafficking Raising Awareness and Campaigning), a group founded by CoREW.
In London, the Sisters of Mercy founded the Women at the Well project which has worked with enslaved prostitutes for the last 15 years, while Sisters from the Institute of Our Lady of Mercy and from the Congregation of Handmaids of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity have helped to set up and run Bakhita House, a rescue centre of Caritas Westminster.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols was, of course, instrumental in establishing the Santa Marta Group to prevent human trafficking and slavery. More recently, Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool has also made property available specifically for male victims of trafficking, along with a grant of £50,000, giving shelter to nine men pulled from slavery.
Pope Francis has also shown tremendous leadership in the struggle, and his example is vitally important because the problem is global.
According to Arise, an estimated 40.3 million people are enslaved and of these, 20.9 million are exploited by forced labour while 4.8 million are forced against their will into prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation. One in four slaves are children.
Other statistics pointing to the sheer horror of the phenomenon relate to the trafficking in human organs, with 10,000 human kidneys traded each year.
Sisters from institutes of CoREW are now turning their efforts to assisting in the foundation and operation of anti-slavery initiatives all over the world. Thankfully these are proliferating and growing in size. They include Renate and Talitha Kum in continental Europe, Unanima in the United States, and Amrat and Acrath in South East Asia and Australasia. Together, networks such as these represent a commendable response to the sad reality that slavery is back.
Today, the Church in England and Wales marks Bakhita Day, the feast of St Josephine Bakhita, patron of victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. This is a day when Catholics are asked to pray for all people in the grip of modern slavery, and for those who work against the phenomenon. That’s the very least we could do for women like Maria.