Anglican-Orthodox Conference on Modern Slavery, Istanbul

There are an estimated 46 million enslaved people in the world. The trade in ‘slaves’ is worth €150bn a year globally – second only to drug trafficking. By contrast the OECD countries only spend €1bn per annum tackling it. 76% of victims are forced into commercial sexual exploitation. Many of the rest are trapped in forced labour –in Europe that is mainly in agriculture, the construction industry and domestic servitude.

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It was to address the terrible issue of modern slavery that the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, hosted in early February a joint Anglican/Orthodox conference in Istanbul. The Diocese in Europe was represented by Canon Malcolm Bradshaw MBE, Chaplain of Greater Athens, and Bishop’s Attaché David Fieldsend.

The conference was entitled ‘Sins Before Our Eyes – A Forum on Modern Slavery’. Both Archbishop Justin and Patriarch Bartholomew gave keynote addresses underlining the importance they gave to the issue and dedicating their respective churches to action. Archbishop Justin graciously mentioned the work of the Diocese in Europe on both refugees and trafficking.

Experiences from every continent were shared in discussion, and Malcolm Bradshaw spoke about his work in Greece with refugees and trafficking victims. He was one of many speakers to highlight links between unaccompanied children fleeing conflict and left vulnerable in a strange land and the growth of human trafficking. Archbishop Justin talked of the shameful lack of urgency in rescuing such children shown by state authorities in a number of European countries. He had been involved in a case of three orphaned children of primary age, living alone together in the ruins of a bombed out building in Aleppo. They were turned down for asylum in Britain, even though they had an uncle living in London. One of the reasons given was that they had failed to submit their form online!

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David Fieldsend reported on the diocesan survey on activity to combat human trafficking. He mentioned the recruiting of archdeaconry co-ordinators to publicise the issue and arrange training. He described the first area training day in Belgium.

Archbishop Justin spoke of the need for customers and investors to learn more about the supply chain of products they were buying so they could be sure that slave or child labour had not been involved. The new UK Modern Slavery Act requires companies to report on actions taken (or lack of them) to investigate their supply chains so as to eliminate suppliers using slave labour. There was also a report from the Church Commissioners on investments, and the steps being taken to hold companies to account on this.

One Orthodox Bishop referred to modern slavery as ‘an abomination and a plague’ These numbers involved (easily surpassing those of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that William Wilberforce fought to suppress) are daunting and participants were asked to consider how it was possible that such a massive criminal activity could be taking place in plain sight in Europe. There was talk of a climate of ‘the globalisation of indifference’, which sadly many in the churches seemed not to be immune from. Reference was made to William Wilberforce’s remark to his opponents during a parliamentary speech: ‘You may choose to look the other way, but never say again that you did not know’.

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The conference closed with the signing of a joint declaration by Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Justin. It called for church leaders ‘to find appropriate and effective ways of prosecuting those involved in human trafficking, preventing all forms of modern slavery, and protecting its victims in our communities.’ Christians must ‘become educated, raise awareness, and take action with regard to these tragedies of modern slavery, and commit themselves to working and praying actively towards the eradication of this scourge.’ We commit to ‘the establishment of a joint task force for modern slavery to bring forward timely recommendations as to how the Orthodox Church and the Church of England can collaborate in the battle against this cruel exploitation’.

The official joint declaration can be found here.

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