GLOBAL POSITIONS LAURA LEDERER
Religious Persecution and Human Trafficking Raised a Catholic in Southern Sudan, Francis Bok was 7 years old when he was captured and enslaved during an Arab militia raid on his small village. He saw adults and children brutalized and killed all around him. His captors put a gun to his head and gave him a choice: convert to Islam or lose his life. He was strapped to a donkey and taken north to Kirio, where he lived as a slave. He was forced to sleep with cattle, endured daily beatings, and was given rotten food to eat. Called abeed (black slave), he was given an Arabic name — Dut Giema Abdullah — and forced to perform Islamic prayer rituals. Over the past 10 years, great strides have been made by new human rights coalitions. They have challenged mainstream human rights groups to add religious liberty and human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, to the list of classic human rights issues like political dissent and individual liberty.The International Religious Freedom Act created the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Office in the US Department of State. Several years later, a similar coalition worked to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, which mandated the creation of the Office to Monitor and CombatTrafficking in Persons (TIP Office). IRF monitors violations of religious freedom in countries around the world, and the TIP Office is required by law to publish an annual report that assesses and rates all countries on their significant progress in addressing human trafficking and slavery. Yet both these institutions
have missed a key link between their issues: Religious minorities are frequent victims of human trafficking.This should not be surprising.They lack political power and live in countries where they are often economically stressed and less educated than the majority of the population. Persecution, discrimination, and inequality are a daily part of their lives. In Burma, an estimated 6 million Karen people, a Christian minority, have endured decades of human rights abuses. Targeted by both civilian and military entities and displaced from their homes, tens of thousands have been trafficked into Thailand, China, and Malaysia and sold into involuntary servitude, forced labor, or commercial sexual exploitation. Although the TIP report describes Burma as a source country for both sex and labor trafficking, it fails to mention that a large proportion of the victims are members of a Christian minority sect. In Egypt, Pakistan, and other predominantly Muslim countries, Christian minorities are often subject to forced conversions to Islam. Christians in Egypt make up 8-12 percent of the population, but they lack political power, and few hold high positions in the government or security forces. A 2009 report by Christian Solidarity International and the Coptic Foundation for Human Rights documented dozens of specific cases of Christian Egyptian women being abducted and forced to convert to Islam. Frequently the women are forced or coerced into Muslim marriages, often after being raped. Egyptian authorities generally dismiss the criminality of these forced conversions and marriages, and none of these cases has been prosecuted. The TIP Report 2010 mentions reports of forced marriages of Coptic Christians and the trafficking of Christian girls into prostitution but says that the allegations have not been confirmed. Reports from Pakistan indicate that Hindu and Christian women are also abducted and forced to convert in very
similar circumstances. Perhaps the most extreme example of trafficking motivated by religion is that of Sudan.According to the TIP report, inter-tribal abduction continues to occur in the southern Sudan, with members of rival tribes capturing and enslaving women and children. Organizations such as Christian Solidarity International continue to purchase and free slaves, who were often subjected to forced conversions from Christianity to Islam by their captors and in many cases subjected to physical torture and female genital mutilation as well. It is not just Christian minorities who are vulnerable to human trafficking. In India, where a rigid caste system still prevails despite recent legal reforms, the Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” are targeted by traffickers, who ply parents with money to sell their children. According to the 2010 TIP report, 90 percent of trafficking in India is internal, and those from India’s most disadvantaged social economic strata are particularly vulnerable. The TIP Report makes several recommendations that would decrease human trafficking: increasing efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict offenders; establishing official processes for law enforcement officials to identify victims; and educating government officials and the general public. But in the case of religious minorities, the work must go deeper. Countries must undertake measures to combat religious persecution and related human rights abuses, and religious minorities must receive equal status in society and protection under the law. And, most important, the link between religious minorities and human trafficking must be recognized if prevention, prosecution, and protection efforts are to be successful. Q Laura Lederer is president of Global Centurion, a nonprofit that fights slavery by focusing on the demand side. Dyana Aziz provided research and writing assistance for this article.