Human trafficking is big business. The United Nation’s International Labor Organization estimates that human trafficking generates $150.2 billion in profit annually.

This modern-day slavery happens in many ways, sometimes hidden in plain sight.

People are forced into labor, producing goods or services without seeing just (and sometimes given no) compensation for their work. Others are forced into sexual activity. In some cases, elements of both kinds of exploitation are present; sexual acts may be demanded from workers in addition to their labor.

The tragedy of adults being forced into servitude or sex acts is horrible. Even more tragic is that children are exploited in a wide variety of industries and settings, including domestic servitude, retail personal care services (hair braiding), construction and manual labor, restaurant work and agricultural processing.

Some children and adults are relatively isolated in people’s homes while others are in contact with the public in retail settings. We may be encountering people who are being trafficked in our daily lives, as we shop, take our children to school, go out to eat or buy food.

Too often, these individuals are targeted at particularly vulnerable moments of their lives: when they are fleeing violence or extreme poverty in their homeland.

A few months ago, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster and a strong advocate for human trafficking victims, recounted a story of a mother who was fleeing the war in Ukraine. She was directed to get on a bus, which she discovered was filled with women and children.

Providentially, she had been handed a brochure when she crossed the border. When she realized the bus was not going in the direction she expected, she contacted a number on the brochure using her mobile phone.

“She rang the number, the police came and stopped the bus, and I believe some 27 women and children were rescued from potential forced labor or slavery,” Archbishop Nichols said.

The U.S. Department of States estimates 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year, many of them crossing our southern border. El Paso and Houston are identified as Texas cities with a particularly high level of human trafficking, and it is estimated almost 20% of all trafficking victims in the United States travel through Texas.

Our churches join with other people of good will, including border agents, local law enforcement, civic agencies and other faith-based groups, to serve those who are fleeing for their very lives and seeking to find a safe haven for themselves and their families.

Our work includes trying to protect those who are crossing our borders from the wolves of human traffickers and drug gangs who prey on them and their need to provide for themselves and their families.

One way we do that is by raising awareness in our communities of the reality of modern-day human trafficking and slavery, and by encouraging people to pray for all affected by this scourge.

For several years, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops has joined with the First Lady of Texas to highlight the Week of Prayer to End Human Trafficking, which is usually the second week of January.

Catholic Charities agencies in Houston and San Antonio offer pastoral ministry to human trafficking victims, providing material and spiritual support to people.

We also join the Vatican and other entities on Feb. 8, the World Day of Prayer, Reflection and Action against Human Trafficking. That’s the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, who was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in Sudan and Italy.

While enslaved, Josephine met a group of Catholic nuns, who taught her that she was created in the image of God and was endowed with human dignity. Strengthened by this knowledge, she was able to demand her freedom. She spent the remainder of her life as a Catholic nun, following Christ “as the master desires.”

Our efforts to be the hands and feet, the heart and voice of Christ bring us the freedom of the cross. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, we are called to freedom, not “as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, [to] serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Gal. 5:13-14).

May our efforts at education and prayer open many eyes and hearts, starting with our own, to bring freedom to the captives and release all of us from the darkness of human trafficking.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week, calling attention to January as National Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The previous article in the series is:

To Address Sex Trafficking, We Must Reduce Demand | Pam Strickland

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