Experiences of Faith-Based Organizations as Key Stakeholders in Policy Responses to Human Trafficking


Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) are key stakeholders in the fight against human trafficking [1,2]. They have had a historically prominent role in anti-trafficking efforts in Europe and the United States. Christian missionary societies established the anti-trafficking movement in the 1900s [3]. Likewise, they strongly influenced the revival of the anti-trafficking discourse in the 1970s [4,5]. They were engaged in the fight against human trafficking long before the UN’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons of 2000 (Palermo Protocol) [5,6]. Yet, a lack of knowledge about why and how they do anti- human trafficking work hampers their legitimacy in the field.

An FBO is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) established based on a faith tradition from which it derives guidance and impetus for its work in communities [6,7,8]. In other words, an FBO is an organization with ties to a religious institution and an underpinning faith ethos [8]. According to John-Michael [9], FBOs can better be described along a continuum, with at one end, those aiming to expand their faith with charitable services as a strategy to access communities through their religious messages, and on the other end, those compelled by their faith to protect oppressed groups and provide services without any expectation of conversion of service recipients.

1.1. Faith as FBOs’ Major Inspiration for Anti-Human Trafficking Work

FBOs’ engagement in the fight against human trafficking is justified in the sacred texts of major religions, including Christianism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and their various branches [1,10,11,12]. Sacred texts such as the Torah, the Bible (including the Old Testament and New Testament), the Koran, and the Vedas, etc., contain sections calling on believers to fight for and protect the poor, the oppressed, and the weak [10,12,13]. In a review of the influence of sacred scriptures in the fight against human trafficking in the US, Barrows [10] highlights the New Testament’s rationale for Christian FBOs’ passion, the Torah’s influence on Jewish FBOs’ drive, the Koran’s effect on Muslim FBOs’ motivation, and the Bahá’u’lláh’s inspiration in Bahá’í’ FBOs activism for the fight against human trafficking. For instance, the Torah commands Jews to protect strangers and demonstrate empathy for the most vulnerable [13]. Jewish FBOs’ impetus for anti-human trafficking work has been connected with the Jewish people’s historic journey to freedom [13]. Likewise, UNODC’s report titled Combating Trafficking in Persons in Accordance with the Principles of Islamic Law [12] stresses that Islam prohibits labor and sexual exploitation. Many Christian anti-trafficking FBOs in the US identified their sacred scriptures as the driving force behind their work [11]. Those in the anti-trafficking movement in the UK identified William Wilberforce, a prominent Christian British abolitionist who crusaded to end the slave trade in the British Empire, as their pioneering source of inspiration for their work [11].

FBOs have substantially influenced the development of human trafficking policies in the US and the UK [1,6,8,14]. FBOs of Christian denominations have considerably influenced how human trafficking has been conceptualized in the USA [5,10]. For instance, Evangelical Christian FBOs were instrumental in developing the seminal human trafficking legislation, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 [5,15]. The Washington Inter-Religious Staff Community Working Group on Human Trafficking’s [16] report shows that faith has a crucial influence on the engagement of major FBOs in the fight against human trafficking in the USA. The Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 is a salient illustration of the influence of Wilberforce-like Christian activists in the US anti-trafficking policy responses. They are prominent in anti-human trafficking service provision, campaigning, and political lobbying. In 2014, global leaders from the Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim faiths met in Vatican City to sign the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery [17]. The Joint Declaration conveys a unified faith-based proclamation that human trafficking is intolerable [5]. Faith-based communities, organizations, and congregations are powerful and important forces to count on in the fight against human trafficking [18]. According to Harrelson [6], FBOs’ input in the anti-trafficking movement is likely to increase, which makes them influential stakeholders, strong adversaries, or powerful allies for other stakeholders. This author argued that FBOs have some leverage in doing anti-trafficking work because of their religious sensibility, and their motivation to often go above and beyond the call of duty and offer help in ways that enthuse an unusual level of trust among the people they serve.

FBOs’ motivation for anti-human trafficking work is perceived as narrow because many tend to focus primarily on sex trafficking [11,19,20]. Weitzer [19] argued that Christian FBOs use their fight against sex trafficking to push their anti-sex policy agendas. FBOs sometimes use their services to convert human trafficking victims to their faiths [11,19,21]. Likewise, it was found that some religious leaders would utilize faith to coerce individuals and families into situations of exploitation [11,22,23]. Traffickers too would use religious language to ensure that trafficking victims are not able to understand their situation of exploitation [22,24]. In a review of three court cases, Heil [22] discussed how church leaders used religious beliefs to control members and maintain them in situations of involuntary servitude. In the case of the United States v. Lewis (1986), members of the House of Judah, a black religious sect, especially children, were routinely whipped for failing to complete forced work orders, including cleaning barns, cutting grass, caring for cattle, and cleaning toilets. The successful prosecution of the case was partly due to a link established between the religious leader’s assumed biblical authority and the result of evident abuse, exploitation, and seclusion. Another criticism researchers such as Harrelson [6] have against FBOs is that they sometimes exclude people who do not share their religious views or they try to convert them, which raises an ethical issue. Consequently, Harrelson [6] argued that FBOs could not lead the fight against human trafficking unless they prioritized assistance services over proselytizing.

However, some researchers (e.g., Green and Sherman [25]; Lewis et al. [8]; Twombly [26]) do not share the perception that FBOs prioritize proselytizing over assistance services. Green and Sherman [25] found that only 20% of FBOs regularly asked the clients they served to participate in religious activities. Twombly [26] found that faith was not prominently emphasized in the services provided by many FBOs, even though the spiritual nature of their work was useful and distinctive. In their recent three-year national study in the UK, Lewis et al. [8] found almost no evidence that FBOs involved in the anti-trafficking service field “were riddled with direct evangelism, proselytism, and spiritual abuse… despite some fear that this is the case”, (p. 3). The FBOs in that study were found to have strong positions against proselytization [8]. Lewis et al. found that anecdotes of proselytism and spiritual abuse in services to trafficking victims were often associated with very few FBOs.

1.2. FBOs’ Engagement in the Fight against Human Trafficking

FBOs play important roles in the areas of the prevention of human trafficking and the protection of the victims [1,10,26,27,28,29,30]. They can access substantial resources through religious networks [6,31]. Faith traditions and established social networks in some communities allow FBOs to sustain their anti-human trafficking work [6,30]. Lewis et al. [8] found that FBOs represent around 30% of analyzed service responses to human trafficking in the UK. FBOs in the US are engaged in anti-human trafficking work at various levels, including community, state, or national (e.g., Salvation Army; My Project USA; T’ruah; Hope for Life; etc.) [10]. They intervene in human trafficking prevention through advocacy and awareness-raising at the local, state, and federal levels [30]. Barrows [10] reported that the FBO called My Project USA was involved in community-level human trafficking prevention through its Muslims Against Human Trafficking initiative, which started in 2020 in Columbus, Ohio, after the arrest of 29 Muslim gang members who had trafficked minor Muslim girls for 10 years. T’ruah has created online educational resources to empower US Jewish communities to engage efficiently in various anti-trafficking efforts at a local level [10]. Another FBO, the National Council of Jewish Women, trains its members to use traditional and social media to raise awareness about sex trafficking through its Exodus initiative [10]. Some FBOs focus on specific forms of trafficking (e.g., sex trafficking or male trafficking, etc.) and categories of victims (children, males, or females, etc.) to be effective in their services (e.g., Emmaus focuses on male sexual exploitation) [10]. Other FBOs are engaged in changing policies affecting human trafficking through legal advocacy at the local, state, and federal levels. For instance, Shared Hope International focuses on domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) policies at the state and federal levels (10). Similarly, Lewis et al. [8] found that FBOs in the UK are more likely to be single-issue trafficking organizations delivering more direct services than their secular counterparts; they also significantly contribute to political lobbying. FBOs also assist law enforcement agencies in investigations of human trafficking cases. For example, Hope for Justice USA, through its Tennessee Investigative Center made of private investigators, helps several law enforcement agencies with investigations of trafficking cases in Tennessee and beyond [10].

1.3. Contribution to the Literature on FBOs’ Anti-Human Trafficking Work

Much of the limited research on FBOs’ anti-human trafficking work is conceptual. It consists of systematic reviews of organizational reports and websites or grey literature reviews. Reviews of the literature on FBOs regarding services other than human trafficking show that evaluations of FBOs’ services were basic and lacked reliability [10,32]. Lewis et al. [8] arguably conducted the most extensive, empirical research on FBOs’ practices and activities in response to human trafficking in the UK, primarily in England. They found that FBOs provide access to alternative resources, as they benefit from non-restricted private funding, which allows them to offer critical services and longer-term support. Lewis et al. [8] argued that “Access to unrestricted funds also provides FBOs with some freedom from governments or funders’ whims about the extent to which modern slavery is a funding priority,” (p. 23). By filling the gaps in services and relying on private funding, FBOs might inadvertently prop up public underfunding for human trafficking.

Similar to Lewis et al.’s research on FBOs’ practices and activities in services to human trafficking in the UK, it is important to explore FBOs’ roles as key stakeholders in the fight against human trafficking in other developed countries, so as to better understand how they contribute to human trafficking policy responses in diverse contexts. The present study examines the motivations, competencies, experiences, and challenges of FBOs involved in anti-human trafficking work in the American context. Four research questions are addressed to achieve this goal: (1) What factors motivate FBOs’ engagement in anti-human trafficking work? (2) What competencies make FBOs key stakeholders in the fight against human trafficking? (3) What are FBOs’ experiences, contributions, and challenges in anti-human trafficking work? And (4) How can FBOs’ input in the fight against human trafficking be enhanced?


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