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A Franciscan Voice at the UN
By Judy Ball
Human trafficking is currently a thriving business. Franciscans International is working to shut it down.

Q U I C K S C A N

Offering Education and Training
The Driving Forces of FI
United States Not Immune
Realistic But Hopeful
'Divinely Protected'
Responding to a Dream
Tapping Youthful Idealism

Brother Matthew from the Democratic Republic of Congo visits the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, as part of a Franciscans International Training Session. PHOTO FROM FRANCISCANS INTERNATIONAL

MARIA GREW UP in extreme poverty in Cameroon in West Africa. When she was offered a job in France that would allow her to support her family, she leapt at the chance to build a better life. Teresa left her home in the Philippines to work as a maid for a rich woman in Lebanon, where she was assured she could earn enough money to live on and help her family back home as well. Katarina and her young son traveled from their home in Ukraine to northwest Italy, where they were promised factory work that would assure a brighter future for both.

Their happy endings evaporated. When they arrived in their host countries, their passports were confiscated by local representatives of the recruitment agencies. They were subjected to beatings, confinement, verbal and sexual abuse. Their earnings were withheld and their work hours were extended. They were forbidden communication with their families back home.

Human trafficking. Who wouldn’t be repulsed at the mere thought of buying and selling vulnerable people for economic gain, forcing them to work as prostitutes or domestics, as child soldiers or laborers, preventing them from returning to their homes and families, deceiving and robbing them of their freedom and dignity? That’s nothing less than a contemporary form of slavery!

It’s also a thriving business. At any point in time, an estimated 2.5 million persons around the globe are victims of trafficking, two thirds for purposes of sexual exploitation, one third for other economic purposes. The annual estimated profit to traffickers worldwide is in the billions of dollars. Only drug trafficking is more lucrative.

Father John Quigley, O.F.M., calls human trafficking “a particularly egregious violation of human rights that is especially urgent today. We think of ourselves as being above this, but the trafficking of persons is a very quiet problem in the back rooms of our society,” he told St. Anthony Messenger last June from the offices of Franciscans International (FI) in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Prostitution is only one of the lucrative businesses,” says Father John, executive director of FI. “Trafficking victims are also quietly making clothes, cleaning hotels—keeping the economy humming and costs down.”

Almost no country is immune to the scourge of human trafficking, despite the many international laws and United Nations standards condemning it. Just ask the Franciscan men and women who live with and serve the poor in many of the countries where it thrives. In their ministries they encounter its victims—women, girls, men, boys—who, typically, have left their country of origin, lured by promises of employment, new opportunities and a stable life. Often, they are not aware that human trafficking is a crime and that, at least in some countries, laws exist to protect them.

Individual Franciscans have long offered pastoral support and legal advice to victims of trafficking. But the expertise of Franciscans International has given the entire Franciscan family new tools designed to help them eradicate trafficking locally and far beyond.

Offering Education and Training

As a nongovernmental organization (NGO) at the United Nations, Franciscans International has made human trafficking one of its top priorities since 2002. FI has developed a series of practical programs at its New York and Geneva offices to address their specific needs. (For background on FI’s origin and growth, see Responding to a Dream.)

These include workshops designed to acquaint Franciscans with existing international laws and U.N. protocols regarding human trafficking and forced labor and to give them tools they can use at home to press for change. The training, typically lasting several days, is often scheduled during the autumn and spring meetings of the U.N. Human Rights Council (formerly Human Rights Commission). So far, Franciscan friars and sisters have come from India, Lebanon, Italy, Germany, Togo, Zambia, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Canada, Burkina Faso and France for training sessions in Geneva or New York.

Sessions offer information about the U.N. human-rights protection system and about ways to combat human trafficking and forced labor. As an accredited NGO, Franciscans International can contribute reports from the field, suggest language for resolutions to be voted on in the U.N. system and catch the ear of sympathetic diplomats. NGOs cannot speak at the General Assembly or the Security Council, but there are all kinds of creative ways to “buttonhole” diplomats, Father John notes.

Members of the FI family are often invited to deliver their own written and oral statements at the United Nations, where they can speak with authenticity on behalf of the victims of human trafficking and share the stories of victims like Maria, Teresa, and Katarina and her son. They advocate not only for the legal protection of victims of trafficking but also for the punishment of traffickers as criminals.

After the Franciscan women and men return to their local ministries, FI continues the work: organizing seminars and roundtable discussions about prevention of trafficking, delivering statements to relevant U.N. bodies, networking with diplomats, drafting and promoting specific resolutions, raising awareness of the problem of trafficking.

In 2004, FI and other organizations succeeded in pressing the United Nations for the creation of a special rapporteur, or independent expert investigator, on trafficking of human beings, especially women and children. A year ago last fall, special rapporteur Sigma Huda traveled to Lebanon to investigate the deplorable conditions there for domestic migrant workers.

Welcomed by the government of Lebanon—the key first step—she visited and talked with local Franciscans, as well as other faith-based groups and NGOs working on the issue. She incorporated FI’s concerns and recommendations for reform into her official report. These included identification, protection and safe repatriation of trafficked persons, and prosecution of traffickers. It was a long but successful process.

It was also a sign of FI’s growing clout.

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The Driving Forces of FI

The tireless, driving force behind FI’s anti-trafficking efforts is Alessandra Aula, who is based in Geneva. As International Advocacy Coordinator at Franciscans International, she has overseen its anti-trafficking efforts from the start. It is her role to promote and urge, to work behind the scenes to bring about constructive change in the United Nations wherever she can. Sometimes her work is more public, as she works the U.N.’s halls, where she helps draft oral and written statements designed to bring the concrete needs of trafficking victims to the attention of governments and U.N. diplomats.

“We have come to be a very respected, credible actor on this issue,” Alessandra told St. Anthony Messenger last June. “The U.N. invited us to become part of the Group of Intergovernmental Organizations on Human Trafficking and Smuggling of Migrants. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has praised our work.”

A native of Italy, Alessandra is highly regarded in U.N. circles and among other NGOs for her expertise in human rights and in the workings of the United Nations.

Also playing a key role in FI’s advocacy work against human trafficking is Yao Agbetse, a 29-year-old who arrived as an intern several years ago from his home in Togo, West Africa. Now a full-time staff member simultaneously pursuing a doctorate in international law and human rights, he divides his full-time efforts at FI between human trafficking and protection of migrant workers. (Trafficked persons are often treated as “illegal” migrants rather than as victims of an evil trade.)

Last June, Yao helped organize a three-day training program in English. He says, “Our goal is to give grassroots Franciscans the tools they need to work on this growing global phenomenon.” FI’s starting point, he says, is that trafficked persons and their defenders often are not aware of the international instruments available to help them fight against it.

His own awareness of the issue has grown along the way as well. “He has developed real knowledge and expertise,” says Alessandra of her co-worker. “He speaks effectively to religious groups. He is getting our message out more and more. He drafted our Handbook on Human Trafficking, which calls trafficking a “heinous business” that calls for “urgent action.”

In June 2006, Alessandra and Yao’s efforts benefited several Franciscan Sisters of Mary from various parts of India who had traveled to Geneva to participate in some days of training about human trafficking.

“My state supplies a lot of girls to Mumbai [formerly called Bombay] and Goa and a smaller number to Delhi,” says Sister Alberta, director of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary Social Service Society in Andhra Pradesh.

“When I go home, I will work for awareness among the women’s groups I work with in urban slums and in the rural area. I always knew the United Nations was there, but now I know how to make my government accountable. Trafficking is a form of slavery. I don’t believe in waiting for things to happen; I believe in making them happen.”

United States Not Immune

Meanwhile, the Franciscan Federation of North America, meeting in New York last July, passed an anti-trafficking resolution that calls on U.S. authorities to track down traffickers’ networks and give better protection to victims of trafficking both in the United States and beyond.

Spearheading the effort was Sister Sheila Kinsey, O.S.F., who had participated in an FI training workshop in New York the year before. The Federation, made up of most of the Third Order Regular Franciscan women and men religious, has declared April 22 National Human Trafficking Awareness Day in the United States.

Noting that human trafficking “is against our Franciscan values,” the group urged prayer or some “outward action” as part of the Franciscan call to address and heal the wounds of the poor. An estimated 16,000 persons, mostly children, are trafficked in the United States each year. Most are forced into prostitution or labor. Those recognized as victims of trafficking by the U.S. government are entitled to refugee status.

Realistic But Hopeful

No one connected with Franciscans International expects human trafficking, or FI’s other major concerns—including poverty, violence, religious freedom, development, HIV/AIDS—to disappear.

Not Alessandra Aula, though she is encouraged by the establishment of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which held its opening sessions June 19-30, 2006. She sees in the new body (which does more than simply replace the old Commission on Human Rights) signs of a fresh and more serious effort to address grievous human-rights abuses around the world.

And not Father John. Speaking from his Geneva office, a short walk from the United Nations complex, he acknowledges the world body’s imperfections. But after a decade of firsthand experience and personal contacts, he sees its potential, too. He has fully embraced the dream of a Franciscan presence and influence at the United Nations as it tackles some of the most profound and perplexing problems facing humankind.

“The United Nations is not rooted in Christian values,” he acknowledges, and member states are more likely to protect their own interests than worry about human rights. “In 25 years, the world community may have something else, but for now there’s nothing better out there. We cannot afford to live alone, to be isolated. We’re not here to defend the United Nations. We’re here to defend the rights of the poor.”

'Divinely Protected'

In a letter directed to Franciscan sisters and brothers last year, the six leaders of the Conference of the Franciscan Family asked for ongoing vigorous support of Franciscans International, “our shared mission at the United Nations.” Funds for FI’s efforts come from a variety of sources: 60 percent from the Franciscan family and 40 percent from official partners (the Dominicans and the Marists), private individuals as well as mission offices and funding agencies. While the support of the Franciscan family is critical, FI also will need to grow support from other sources, too, if the work is to continue, says Chris Duckett, chief fund-raiser.

The truth is, financial stresses are a chronic concern at FI. But Father John is a man of faith. One night some months ago at his friary, just a few blocks from the FI offices, he was praying about the latest financial crisis, one he’d shared the night before with several dinner guests. Within 24 hours, a large number of Swiss francs suddenly surfaced in the FI account. Despite efforts to learn the source of the mysterious and wonderful gift, Father John was told by bank officials that the donor insisted on anonymity.

As miraculous as it was, he says, the gift was also a reminder “that there is another force at work here. This project is imperfect, but it’s divinely protected.”

Responding to a Dream

Franciscans International began as a dream in 1982, and such an unlikely one: That, somehow, the voices of Franciscan men and women around the world could find a listening ear at the United Nations. That, somehow, they could speak to powerful and influential world leaders on behalf of the powerless and the poor they serve around the world. That, somehow together, they could help address the most pressing social problems afflicting the human family.

Over time, the dream was realized. In 1989, Franciscans International was recognized by the U.N.’s Department of Public Information. A few years later, FI received the status of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) and opened an office in New York. In 1995, it achieved General Consultative Status, the highest level possible for an NGO, and added another office in Geneva, Switzerland. In 2007, FI is planning to open in Bangkok, Thailand, an office for Franciscans of the Asia Pacific region.

Father John Quigley, O.F.M., has played an instrumental role in building Franciscans International as part of an inter-Franciscan preparatory committee. Meanwhile, he continued his peace and justice ministry for his province, St. John the Baptist in Cincinnati. From 1988 to 1997 he served as director of the office of Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation for the worldwide O.F.M. headquarters in Rome. After a decade, he was asked to serve in Geneva.

Since 1997, the 61-year-old native of Canada has served as director of FI’s office there. In 2004, Father John began a three-year term as executive director of Franciscans International. He oversees the work of both the New York and Geneva offices.

He and Alessandra Aula, a veteran human-rights expert, established the Geneva office of Franciscans International and immediately welcomed the Dominicans as official partners. Over the past decade, other faith-based NGOs and various ecumenical groups have regularly worked with FI on efforts to aid the world’s poor and powerless. FI’s newest partner is the Marist Brothers’ congregation.

To determine which priorities to pursue at the United Nations, FI turns to its best source: Franciscans at the local level. That includes Friars Minor, Capuchins, Conventuals, Third Order Regular members, including many sisters’ communities, and lay Franciscans, along with individual supporters.

“We don’t get our agenda from the evening news but from our people at the grassroots,” Father John tells St. Anthony Messenger. FI networks with Franciscans in more than 180 countries who work with the poor and marginalized and learns from them what issues most need to be addressed at the international level. These issues include the rights of children, discrimination against women, poverty, HIV/AIDS, human rights, migration and peacemaking.

“It is slow, but essential, work,” he says. “We are trying to help the international community when it is making decisions about human-rights policies and standards so they protect the poor.”

Father John is convinced that’s just where Franciscans need to be. “We are seeing more and more that local problems are influenced by international decisions. We Franciscans can be the platform for the people who are suffering. Our most important work is supporting and encouraging some of the really heroic Franciscans at the local level—reinforcing and expanding the influence of their work, protecting them in their efforts so they are not forgotten, networking with them and connecting them with other groups.”

Their Web site is: Franciscansinternational.org. Their New York office is located at 211 East 43rd Street, Room 1100, New York, NY 10017-4707, phone 212-490-4624. Their Geneva office is located at 37-39 rue de Vermont, P.O. Box 104, CH-1211 Geneva 20, Switzerland, phone 41-22-919- 4010.

Tapping Youthful Idealism

In 1999, Franciscans International (FI) began turning to interns to extend the work of its existing staff and also introduce young men and women to the Franciscan family. Since then, about 60 interns, commonly from the United States and Canada, have served at FI. Up to 10 of them are on hand at any one time.

Their tasks include designing and/or writing for FI’s Web site, creating pamphlets and booklets on any number of topics, welcoming visiting Franciscans and other guests, helping with fund-raising, networking with other faith-based NGOs and staying in touch with Franciscans in the field.

The interns are eager, ideal ambassadors as they answer the telephone or engage visitors amidst their tasks. In return for their 40-hour work week, FI pays their housing as well as a monthly stipend of $500; the interns handle their own travel and health-care expenses.

Most arrive with some graduate school experience and stay for one to two years. As executive director of FI, Father John Quigley, O.F.M., looks for “a religious sensitivity,” along with the right mix of skills, flexibility and openness when he interviews prospective interns. They needn’t be Catholic, he says, but he is very clear: If they come to FI, they become part of a “community of believers.” They are expected to attend the Wednesday morning prayer service each week and to travel with the group to Assisi in the autumn to deepen their appreciation of Franciscan spirituality.

The modern, open FI office in Geneva is busy but subdued, purposeful but friendly. Young people in their early to mid-20’s move about with ease and confidence. They speak in soft, earnest voices, unconsciously switching from English to French or Italian to Spanish as they tackle their various tasks.

Maria Karapetyan, 23, is a perfect example. Born in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, she is of Armenian descent. She came to the United States as an exchange student at Marian College in Indianapolis, operated by the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg. She majored in sociology and minored in political science, social justice and pre-law. After finishing her studies in three years, Maria worked at FI’s office in New York, focusing her efforts on HIV/AIDS and disarmament. Last fall, she moved to Geneva.

When St. Anthony Messenger spoke with Maria in June, she was developing a handbook guide to disarmament. Fluent in Russian and English and “adequate” in several other languages, Maria sees her future in security or immigration law.

Now back in the United States and hoping to attend journalism school this autumn, Maria also can’t leave behind her experiences at FI. “I was baptized Armenian Orthodox and didn’t know much about Franciscans or the Roman Catholic Church,” she says. “Franciscan values are the same ones I grew up with and heard at home: peace, responsibility, reconciliation, human dignity, caring for people. There is so much that faith-based organizations like Franciscans International can do.”


Judy Ball edits newsletters for St. Anthony Messenger Press, specifically Every Day Catholic, Catechism for US, Jesus: A Historical Portrait, which runs through February, and Walking With the Saints, which starts in March. She says that, as a “citizen of the world,” she found it a special privilege to write about the amazing work of Franciscans International.


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