Last week I joined the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Ecumenical Patriarch, His All-Holiness Bartholomew of Constantinople, for a forum on modern slavery – ‘Sins Before Our Eyes’. Over two days, in the company of scholars, practitioners and policymakers, world leaders of influential faith groups pledged commitment to combat the evil of modern slavery.

I witnessed the Archbishop and the Patriarch sign a joint declaration which pledged to:

  • Condemn all forms of human enslavement
  • Commend the efforts of the international community
  • Appeal to governments to implement strict modern slavery laws
  • Urge members of the Orthodox Church and Church of England to become educated, raise awareness and take action
  • Commit to establish a joint taskforce for fighting modern slavery, looking at ways for how the Orthodox Church and the Church of England can work together.

In his keynote address the Ecumenical Patriarch explained, “It is impossible for the Church to close its eyes to evil, to be indifferent to the cry of the needy, oppressed and exploited.” For religious communities worldwide, the protection of human dignity and freedom is of utmost importance, as outlined in a recent blog from The Economist which highlighted what churches can bring to the battle against slavery. Many faith groups have a unique resolve and determination to fight against injustice. It is a part of their moral compass and very purpose on earth. We cannot waste this willingness.

As the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner one of my core priorities is to encourage partnerships and I firmly believe that faith groups are a crucial partner in the fight against modern slavery. With an open-door policy and a desire to provide pastoral support, the church is often known as a place of refuge and solace for victims, an invaluable strength in combating the crime.

When victims are controlled by their traffickers, often the only place they are allowed to go without close scrutiny is the local church or place of worship. Foreign national victims of slavery are usually very wary of the authorities in the UK and find it difficult to trust them for fear of what might happen to them, as told to them by the traffickers. In my time at the Metropolitan Police, I therefore forged unique victim-centred partnerships with faith groups.

In particular, I worked closely with the Catholic Church. Together with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, and His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, in April 2014 we launched the Santa Marta Group at the Vatican. This is a very unusual group, bringing together bishops and police leaders from across the world - over 30 countries to date - working together with civil society to eradicate modern slavery, in a process endorsed by Pope Francis.

A number of practical projects are now developing under the Santa Marta Group umbrella. This includes work to tackle the exploitation of vulnerable men in the fishing industry in the North Atlantic Ocean; projects to develop strong Church and state partnerships together in Lithuania; as well as working to utilise the Church’s positive influence and networks in Nigeria. I do not doubt that following the commitment made this week, more projects like this will start to surface.

In his opening remarks at the Forum, the Archbishop of Canterbury said slavery is “still a living reality in all of our communities, as I have seen from personal experience in the United Kingdom, not because we think it is acceptable, but because our sin lies in blindness and ignorance.” Many indeed seem blind to modern slavery, believing it is hidden behind closed doors. In some cases this is true, but often, trafficking, slavery and exploitation can be seen before our eyes in local nail bars, car washes and residential homes. The church’s impact at the local level will help transform people’s perceptions and ultimately protect victims.

The forum also looked at international efforts, focusing heavily on the migrant and refugee crisis – something I was pleased to see raised. More people have been driven from their homes than at any time since UN records began, with huge numbers of people left vulnerable to exploitation. I believe that elements of what is happening in Europe is moving from a migrant crisis to a human trafficking crisis; people on the move are targeted by opportunistic criminals who exploit the crisis by systematically pursuing vulnerable children and adults. Attendees shared concern for those within the crisis, displaced by conflict, persecution and natural disasters, and with its global reach, the church committed to repent for not doing enough and pledged action to do more.

The UK Prime Minister welcomed the declaration made by the Patriarch and Archbishop, stating, “The UK is leading the way in helping to tackle this vile and barbaric crime. However, governments alone will not be able to stop it. It is vital that all parts of society do their part. That is why I so warmly welcome the vital work that faith communities are doing.” Similarly, I believe that what religious communities bring will boost our fight. The church is in a powerful position to not only impact world leaders but also effect change in local communities. Whether shaping policy at the top or working on the ground, those fighting modern slavery need influence and resource – both the church can provide.