Churches can help fight human trafficking: 'churches are everywhere, and there is power in that'

By Chris Eyte |
A club popular for sex work seen at night time on March 07, 2023 in Illescas, Spain.
A club popular for sex work seen at night time on March 07, 2023 in Illescas, Spain. | Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

As UEFA's Euro2024 kicked off in Germany, some are raising concerns about the correlation between sports events and sexual exploitation. With millions of fans pouring in for the football tournament, there is an increased risk for human trafficking to feed the dark business taking place outside the stadiums.

Christian Daily International recently spoke with two women who have worked on the front lines of combatting human trafficking for years. While reports say that modern slavery is increasing in Europe, they say that churches can play a unique role in local neighborhoods if they pay attention and understand how much they can help those who have fallen victim to the trade.

Frontline help in Belgium

April Foster started the Breaking Chains Network (BCN) with her husband Jerry in 2007. The ministry is focused on the red light district of Antwerp, and Foster oversees the work having spent many years in the Belgian city. 

Foster’s heart for victims of human trafficking originated in 2004. She became concerned about the welfare of Thai children who went missing from hospitals after the infamous Indian Ocean Tsunami. To her horror, Foster realized the youngsters were being kidnapped from medical facilities and then exploited by sexual predators.  

“It gripped my heart that somebody could be so cruel to prey on the vulnerabilities of children,” Foster recalled grimly. She soon realized her heart felt a burden to help victims of human trafficking. Foster’s Christian employer at the time recognised her calling and released her to help those in need. 

BCN now utilizes a team of volunteers in Antwerp and has assisted thousands of women from more than 40 countries, who find themselves in difficult situations in the city. 

The ministry opened the Oasis Center in 2010, a community hub to provide practical and spiritual support to the women. It also ran a residential home briefly for three years. 

Foster explained that the ministry meets women in the district “where they’re ‘at’.” 

“We help in any way we can,” said Foster, who is also an ordained Assemblies of God minister. “With some of them it’s obvious they don’t want to be there, so we help the women leave the district, sometimes with just the clothes they’re wearing.” 

BCN helps arrange legal matters to free the victims such as passports and documents needed to leave, and dealing with debt bondage to pimps. They also support them in getting in touch with their families, if appropriate. 

Foster acknowledged an “element of danger” for the work because of dealing with criminals controlling the women and any child victims. 

“In our district there are criminal gangs bringing people in and there’s been a few encounters over the years, so we keep a low profile. We have to be careful.” 

Several local churches support the ministry, which also supports the women with education, finding other work, and counseling.

“The ministry team is made up of women not men, because men would draw unwanted attention to us in the district.” 

Call for churches to act

Foster wants more churches in Europe to get involved in helping the victims of human trafficking. 

“The wider church in Europe needs to be more aware of the scope of the issue of human trafficking,” Foster said. “There needs to be more training and awareness. Churches should give help to victims when they return home. 

“God uses people to heal people, and there is an importance in the local church providing that place of healing for women who have experienced exploitation.

“For some women who have been traumatized it is problematic often to find a church place that welcomes them and we would like to change that. Our heart is to equip others.”  

Working together

The Breaking Chains Network is a member of the European Freedom Network (EFN), which brings together 270 Christian organizations and individuals from 44 countries collaborating to stop human trafficking and commercial exploitation. 

Leanne Rhodes has worked for 12 years combating human trafficking in Europe. Rhodes joined the core team of EFN in 2015 and served as EFN executive director from 2019 to 2023 and is now a board member. 

She founded an anti-trafficking charity ‘Abolishion’ in 2012 to “break the systems that keep people in sex slavery”, operating in Romania, Portugal and Australia. An ordained minister with the Australian Christian Churches, she also served as global director of the World Evangelical Alliance’s World Freedom Network from 2021 to 2023.   

“I still remember the day I met human trafficking survivors for the first time,” Rhodes said. “There were about 12 girls aged 14-22 that had been trafficked into forced prostitution. Most of them were very friendly, which I wasn’t expecting. It was like they had regressed back in time to a safe age when things were good. 

“But there was this one girl who just sat staring at a wall, rocking back and forth. She was completely closed off. I stayed there for a few days and each day she would come closer to me. On the third day she reached out and held my hand. She held it for a full hour looking at me with tears in her eyes. 

“From that day I knew I could make a difference in the lives of survivors, even if it was just holding someone’s hand."

Some 50 million people are slaves in the world, according to Walk Free Global Slavery Index. Rhodes said human trafficking exists in every European country. 

The Ukraine war showed what churches can do

“Unfortunately the pandemic and now the Ukraine war have seen an increase in vulnerability of people, which has led to increased human trafficking,” Rhodes told Christian Daily International. 

Rhodes said churches were “amazing” in responding to human trafficking when the war in Ukraine began. 

“Churches were running to the borders and EFN worked closely with the European Evangelical Alliance to get social media messaging everywhere about how to look after people in trauma and to protect people from human trafficking,” Rhodes said. ”Churches took this on board and did it, saving countless lives crossing at borders.”

Many churches in Europe respond to human trafficking through supporting NGOs and raising general awareness on the issue. 

“Generally, when a church wants to do more they create a ministry or an NGO, that hopefully wants to become part of EFN,” said Rhodes. “I see EFN as part of the churches’ response to human trafficking rather than being separate from it.”

We can all do something

“Of course churches are everywhere, and there is power in that,” she added. “If we all look after the vulnerable in our communities and keep an eye out for signs of trafficking then we can all do something.”

Rhodes suggested several ways for churches to practically grapple more efficiently with the human trafficking issue and help victims. 

“We always ask churches to become trauma-informed in their practices, making their community a safe place for survivors to heal. After Ukraine, we know a lot more about being trauma-informed, but EFN has many tools to help you work out how to do that.

“Secondly, partner with anti-trafficking organizations in your country. They will best know what is needed at a local/national level and can help your church find a way to contribute that works for what is ‘hidden in plain sight’ in their country as well as what works to their strengths and resources.

“Thirdly, get to know the vulnerable in your community. That is likely where trafficking victims will be.”

Rhodes invited any churches interested in helping survivors of human trafficking to join the EFN and utilize available resources

European lawmakers plan new regulations 

The call on churches to act comes as the European Parliament backs plans to combat human trafficking with new regulations on criminalizing “forced marriage, illegal adoption and exploitation of surrogacy at the EU level”. 

The political body also agreed to enforce “due diligence for businesses” to ensure accountability to stop exploitation on supply chains. 

Europe and Central Asia “has the second highest prevalence of modern slavery of the five global regions”, according to findings of the Walk Free Global Slavery Index. This is due to “the prevalence of forced labor and forced marriage, including poverty, discrimination, migration, and a lack of economic opportunities.”

About 37 percent of trafficking victims are EU citizens, according to the European Commission giving data within a policy statement in April 2023, and often trafficked in their own nation. Meanwhile, victims are predominantly from outside the EU, having increased in recent years. 

“The majority of victims in the EU are women and girls who are mainly trafficked for sexual exploitation,” noted the policy statement. “The ratio of male victims has more than doubled in the last years. Around 15 percent of victims of trafficking in the EU are children.”

Eurostat figures show 10,093 registered human trafficking victims in the EU in 2022, with 63 percent of those women, and with 2,097 convicted traffickers, 78 percent of these criminals were men.