Christine MacMillan on human trafficking : 'It's about having the eyes to see once you know what you're looking for'

Salvation Army Commissioner Christine MacMillan is Chair of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Human Trafficking Taskforce. We caught up with her at Cape Town 2010, the Third Lausanne Congress on world evangelisation, to find out more about the plight of trafficking victims and what the church can do to end this atrocity.

CT: Can you give an idea of the reality facing trafficked men, women and children?

Christine: We always think of trafficking as sexual exploitation but in effect it could be labour trafficking, where people answer an ad thinking they are going to get a real position but end up working in a factory, in a very dark room, perhaps even living in that room, with no windows, no access to the outside world and living as an alien in a foreign country.

In one place of great poverty I have seen hundreds of children living in sewers. These children are transported to a hospital, put on a gurney and one of their vital organs is taken out. If it is an organ they can live without, they are stitched up and brought back to the sewer.

One of the most recent forms of trafficking to emerge is sports trafficking. There are now individuals who will watch kids playing on muddy soccer fields with holes in their shoes and dreams in their eyes, and they will come up to them and say ‘we think we can get you into Manchester United’ or one of the major football teams ‘but it will cost you a little bit of money’.

The parents sell all that they have thinking their child will be a hero and these kids are then transferred by air, which is paid for by the parents who maybe sold a home or car, and they will end up in a country and will be literally hidden out. They will have no status in that country and they will be given a ball and told to play soccer every day.* A lot of these youth are too ashamed to even contact their parents and to return to their country. They were leaving as a hero and now they are unknown and living almost under disguise.

CT: With trafficking being so hidden, is it possible for the church to effectively engage with this issue?

Christine: If a nation does not have trafficking laws and legislation in place then it is very difficult to address the issue. There is no point raiding a brothel or a labour trafficking sweatshop if you cannot lay a charge. It’s not enough to have laws that protect children or people from being kidnapped, because the law is specific. That means human trafficking laws need to address human trafficking. So one of the things Christians can do is find out if there are laws in their nation and rally for them.

There are churches throughout communities so if people are given a basic course in trafficking by their churches, they can then have eyes to see what started as a hunch and find ways of reporting it. Consider: is this happening in my neighbourhood? Why do I see more people coming into this house at 11pm and they are all men? Why are these children on the streets by themselves - because there are some traffickers now taking children and training them to be beggars. It is about having the eyes to see once you know what you are looking for.

CT: What role does demand have to play in combating trafficking?

Christine: Trafficking would dry up tomorrow if there were no customers. Victims are only there because they are purchased, sold, migrated and used, so the church community needs to think about how it can be invitational to the community that demands the services of trafficked people.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church was able to extend itself to people and say ‘are you struggling with this issue?’ ‘Do you wonder how you can get out of it?’

The demand side is not talked about nearly enough. If there is demand there will be victims and I feel that every person who uses a victim goes home and victimises their family. They are living under a secret, under a cloud. We’ve got internet pornography addictions and all kinds of things going on and people don’t know how to get out of it.

The church doesn’t have to point its finger over moral naughtiness. Rather it can open an invitation that says ‘are you struggling with this?’ ‘Do you want to come and talk about this?’ And in that way it can help people get out of it.

CT: What about the victims?

Christine: We want to rescue victims but the victims are so traumatised. They are so damaged. The efforts, the engagement and the energy it takes - people will never be whole again after this. Yes, they will find Christ but they are so damaged.

Because the WEA represents 420 million Christians and there are around 27 million victims of trafficking that we know of, I see 420 million lights going on against the darkness of 27 million and I say church let’s do something.

Trafficking is often symptomatic of other things and the more I work with this issue the more I see that it’s about prevention, prevention, prevention. We know that children are kidnapped often from schools or are vulnerable victims taken late at night. The schools can become a teaching ground for this subject. These are children that have parents and schools are community based, so why not have the schools and the church cooperate together.

There are other practical issues. If you see an ad in the paper for a job thousands of miles away and you apply for it and they tell you to be at the airport at 8 ‘o’ clock, don’t show up. There is a need to create the awareness of how trafficking is conducted and blow the cover.

This is a highly organised crime, it is a syndicate business, it is very well organised and the church cannot be naïve enough to think that it can confront it without the collaboration and cooperation of others, such as law enforcement agencies and prevention taskforces – and also of recognising the danger of this.

CT: You said trafficking is symptomatic of other things. What kind of things?

Christine: In societies where women and children are devalued, trafficking is on the increase. Where there is extreme poverty, sometimes it is seen as a way of easy and quick money. Where there are not any protections in place for syndicate crime then the infrastructure is such that women and children aren’t protected and that’s where it’s on the increase. Where there is corruption in society - and the justice officials themselves can be a part of trafficking - then it’s on the increase.

CT: So the solution has to be multifaceted?

Christine: It has to be a multifaceted solution which expresses itself in different ways in different parts of the world. This is a global issue because traffickers do not know boundaries of nations. Migration is a word that’s used in trafficking and the migration could take place from country to country or from one area to another area within a country, for example from rural to urban settings. It’s not unlike selling goods. They are marketing human beings. If you sell somebody a bag of peanuts they can consume them in 10 minutes. If you sell a person you can hire them out for 18 hours a day for years and years and years. It’s very lucrative.

CT: Where does the focus of your campaigning lie?

Christine: We’ve started influencing the church to first of all become aware of this issue and in their awareness to then come together to explore what it is that they want to do if they want to turn on a light. I would not suggest that anyone should turn a light on unless they are equipped and prepared to understand their boundaries. This work is not for soloists. If a congregation wants to get involved they may have to be prepared to forego something else. They will have to work with professionals and those who understand the issue.

They must know their limitations but also know their possibilities. We would suggest that churches work together in their communities. This is not a denominational issue. This is an issue in God’s so loved world that needs to be addressed by churches coming together and taking back their community and their society. We need to collaborate in our resources. There could be one thing that we do in the community but let’s do it together. This is a tiring effort.

We would also suggest to congregations listen to the stories and begin to hear the stories and digest them. Don’t see this issue as a form of entertainment with a one night speaker at your church. Come before the Lord in prayer as to the darkness of this atrocity. Human trafficking is so well orchestrated that Christians needs the light of God to be astute, wise and powerful.

*Note from the interviewer: the children are trafficked to unlicensed football academies and are often abandoned by their agents if they cannot be placed with a team. The numbers of children trafficked to such ‘academies’ is believed to be in the tens of thousands and the vast majority never receive a contract.

More News in Cape Town 2010