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Pope Francis Blames ‘Neo-Liberal Capitalism’ for Spread of Human Trafficking

By THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, PH.D.

ROME — Pope Francis has singled out “neo-liberal capitalism” and deregulation of markets as causes of human trafficking despite data that suggest the opposite is true.

In a video-message Monday to participants in the 7th World Day of Prayer, Reflection and Action Against Human Trafficking, the pope said that an economy without human trafficking “is an economy with market rules that promote justice, not exclusive special interests.”

“Human trafficking finds fertile ground in the approach of neo-liberal capitalism, in the deregulation of markets aimed at maximizing without ethical limits, without social limits, without environmental limits,” the pontiff declared.

“If this logic is followed, there is only the calculation of advantages and disadvantages,” Francis claimed. “Choices are not made on the basis of ethical criteria, but by pandering to dominant interests, often cleverly obscured by a humanitarian or ecological veneer.”

While placing the blame for human trafficking on “neo-liberal capitalism” and market deregulation may square nicely with the pope’s worldview, it runs counter to the facts.

A 2017 analysis by U.S. News & World Report noted that the five countries with the worst record for human trafficking were all governed by authoritarian regimes with highly regulated markets and little respect for human rights. None of the worst offenders are free market economies.

In first place was Russia, which had established bilateral agreements with North Korea allowing for labor camps and “slave-like conditions” for workers within Russian borders. U.S. News reported that some 20,000 workers from North Korea are sent to Russia each year.

China was the second-worst offender because of its widespread use of human trafficking for state-sponsored forced labor as well as extensive sex trafficking to provide Chinese men with wives. Years of sex-selective abortions have resulted in an estimated 33 to 37 million more males living in China than females, an imbalance that is fueling sex trafficking from multiple nations into China for forced marriage or commercial sexual exploitation.

Iran was number three on the list, as the authoritarian Iranian government coerces foreigners, particularly Afghanis, into combat roles in Syria while small children work as street beggars under the threat of physical and sexual abuse. Instead of punishing traffickers, Iran punishes victims for unlawful acts such as adultery and prostitution, the article stated.

The former Soviet republic of Belarus, number 4 on the list, punishes various offenses — including criticizing the government — with forced and compulsory labor. The U.S. News report notes that some 7,000 people suffering from alcoholism or drug dependencies are held in “medical labor centers” with an obligation to work. The government of Belarus also requires the participation of factory workers, civil servants, and students in harvesting on state-owned farms or in street cleaning.

In fifth place is Venezuela, which came under the rule of authoritarian dictator Nicolas Maduro in 2013. “Sex trafficking and child sex tourism are common, particularly among women lured from poorer regions to tourism hubs,” the article states, and yet the government has conducted no investigations into human trafficking or offered any efforts to protect victims.

The U.S. State Department’s most recent annual report on Human Trafficking (2020) points to mass migration as one of the primary causes of trafficking because of the huge economic interests behind people smuggling and the difficulty involved in properly regulating the influx of large numbers of people, many of whom fall through the cracks and wind up as victims of trafficking.

As just one example of this, during the most recent European migrant crisis (2014-2018), an estimated 80 percent of Nigerian women who migrated into Italy wound up working in prostitution, nearly always against their will.

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