Msgr. Edmond Putrimas, Associate Pastor at Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in Etobicoke, Ont., has been part of a Vatican commission studying human trafficking over the past five years. During that time, he has been working closely with the Archdiocese of Vancouver to help raise awareness of the issue. He's now setting his sights on helping to educate parishioners in the Archdiocese of Toronto. Below, he shares his journey to date.
My awareness of human trafficking began seven years ago when I was invited to the Vatican by the Archdiocese of Westminster (London, UK). As the Lithuanian Bishops' Conference delegate for Lithuanian Catholics abroad, I had a desire to learn about the increasing number of Lithuanian human trafficking victims in London and other regions in the United Kingdom.
Shortly after this invitation, with the blessing of Pope Francis, Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Vincent Nichols began an anti-human trafficking movement called the Santa Marta Group.
The purpose of the Santa Marta Group is to co-ordinate the anti-human trafficking activities of the Catholic Church, governments, police services, diplomats, politicians and non-governmental organizations. This way they can to curb the epidemic of human trafficking and better assist victims by integrating them back into society.
It is a pleasure to support the initiatives of Evelyn Vollet and Sister Nancy Brown in the Archdiocese of Vancouver, who in the spirit of the Santa Marta Group, are leading a movement to counter human trafficking. Their focus is on raising awareness of the victims of prostitution, not only in their own diocese, but they're also reaching out to other dioceses across Canada.
The greatest preventive measure against human trafficking activities is information — especially for youth — explaining the risk factors that can lead to becoming trapped in the cobwebs of human slavery. Equally important is the need to inform the public that there are different types of human trafficking and that the victims of each type require help.
The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud or coercion) for an improper purpose, including forced labour or sexual exploitation.
Realizing the potential of the Santa Marta Group, I helped establish this movement in Lithuania, with the support of the Lithuanian Bishops' Conference. We've had great success. For instance, in 2018 a Lithuanian film producer released a documentary film called Mulai (or Mules in English — the documentary is in Lithuanian but there are English subtitles). It chronicles the many Lithuanian "mules" (someone who smuggles drugs across borders) who are being held in prisons across South America. We were able to visit Peruvian prisons and interview some Lithuanian nationals who were convicted as "mules."
A prisoner being held in a Peruvian prison who was convicted of being a drug mule. (Photo courtesy of Mulai)
Unfortunately, these prisons hold a number of Canadians who are convicted of the same crime.
Many people don't realize that "mules" are victims of human trafficking and usually are not drug users themselves. They were lured into smuggling drugs by "drug lords" who made false promises of substantial monetary rewards. Once they agree to participate in such illegal activities, there is no way out.
Msgr. Edmond Putrimas, on-site at the Peruvian prison during filming, where he met with imprisoned drug mules who he says are victims of human trafficking (Photo courtesy of Mulai)
Pope Francis has repeatedly urged Catholics around the world to pray for the victims of human trafficking and, through awareness, bring an end to this scheme, which generates multi-million dollar profits for traffickers every year.
Here in Canada, human trafficking is a very real issue. But since Canada is such a large and diverse country, it is a challenge to implement the Santa Marta Group movement here. But to start tackling this problem, every diocese and police service needs to define the forms of human trafficking that are plaguing their region and then join other local organizations in creating a Santa Marta Group.
To learn more about human trafficking and slavery, please read Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking, a document published by the Vatican. It's the first step on the journey of awareness, as education leads to action.