A Church tackling one of the ‘greatest scourges of our time’

A Church tackling one of the ‘greatest scourges of our time’ Sr Liz Murphy with Bishops Alan McGuickian and Fintan Gavin and Cardinal Vincent Nichols.

A 2022 report published by the Freedom House organisation, a body that evaluates the health of human rights in respective countries, declared that Ireland ranked 39/40 in the political rights category and 58/60 in the civil liberties category, concluding that Ireland ranked 97/100 when overall freedom was closely scrutinised.

On the surface all looks well and it probably would be if our attention hadn’t been drawn to an area that we have repeatedly failed to address as a nation until very recently – that being the abhorrence of human trafficking – an issue Pope Francis characterises as being “one of the most terrible scourges of our time” and an industry where human beings and their inherent dignity are devalued in favour of profit and greed.

But as Ireland struggles to deal with the totality of the issue, the Church on the other hand has acquired a tremendous body of expertise in identifying the traits of this deplorable movement and actively seeking solutions to try and arrest its presence in societies where it has been allowed to flourish.


Sr Liz Murphy, a Sister of Mercy, knows all too acutely how the issue of human trafficking is manifesting itself in our society. Sr Liz, as a longstanding activist, has been involved with an Act to Prevent Trafficking (APT), and she was a guest of the Garda Commissioner at the Santa Marta Conference on Human trafficking last week in University College Cork, an event which saw 80 delegates from 20 international police forces attend, along with other representatives of the Church, including Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Vincent Nichols. The event resulted in Minister for Justice Helen McEntee vowing to enact new laws to formally recognise victims of human trafficking in the upcoming weeks.

Reflecting on the event to the State of the Nation podcast, Sr Liz said it was the fruit of Pope Francis’ relationship with the global police networks. “It was a gathering of the many people involved in the networks that the Church is involved with,” she said. “Let me say that the word human trafficking really is the modern word for slavery. So this conference followed on from the similar one last year in Lithuania to which I was also invited. And it is based on the relationship between Pope Francis and the police networks, not just in Europe, but extending to something like now, 52 countries.”

One of the key moment in the two days was when the woman Mia gave her personal story, which was about over half an hour, and she got a standing ovation”

Asked how she would define human trafficking, Sr Liz bluntly described it as the “slavery of people” and reminded that it is not just confined to certain sectors or industries and has become a widespread problem encompassing a variety of areas such as “agriculture, domestic service and the sex trade”.

“I think maybe instead of thinking of this [human trafficking] in terms of prostitution, which is I think how many people would think in terms of anti-trafficking, it’s now spread into the movement of people,” she said. “Let me say again, it’s the slavery of people into agriculture, domestic service, the sex trade, wherever, like even the various service level industries”.

With the delegates tasked with not only addressing but providing solutions to what many see as a longstanding and moreover, worsening problem, Sr Liz said that although there were very harrowing personal accounts described in vivid detail at the event, the atmosphere was “cordial” and everybody sensed the gravity of the situation they were dealing with.

“One of the key moments in the two days was when a woman Mia gave her personal story, which was about over half an hour, and she got a standing ovation. On the second day Alan Lynch gave the story of an Indonesian man who was trafficked into Ireland and ended up in a cannabis grow place in Galway.”

“One man thought that by his family paying money from the village where he came, he thought he was coming for the good life into Europe and into Ireland,” she said. “It turned out that the money that was paid was actually to a criminal gang. And then he owed $200,000 for all of his life. I’m talking about years now, not just months. Years were spent trying to pay back that money.”


Although Ireland has been accused of being complacent in tackling the scourge of human trafficking, the Church has amassed decades of experience in identifying, managing and solving the problem and the Church-led anti-trafficking initiatives Sr Liz speaks of proves that the Church has the potential to be at the forefront of this movement, offering humane and pastoral care to those who have been subjected to it and education to those who are removed from its horrors but are conscientious and still have the power to make a societal change.

There is a faith based, group which had done a number of projects from the time it was founded in the 1980s,” she said. “That group meets on the second Monday of every month. And so our current major programme is a programme called Captors, which is for senior students at post-primary level and adapted for parishes. That is a series of videos.

“Sr Liz also pointed out that the same problems continue to persist due to the lack of coordinated strategic plan from the bishops”

In those videos it shows how people are trafficked from, say, China, Indonesia, basically from Asia, right across through, say, Romania. That’s another whole piece in itself. And then how somebody could land in Ireland and where we would find them. So for girls say in secondary school, it’s the nail bars. It could be the person serving you the coffee or even working at the car washes.”

Sr Liz emphasised that events, like the one in Cork, are vital in exercising people to champion for the cause she has devoted a considerable portion of her ministry to and with the Irish Bishops collectively denouncing human trafficking as “a form of modern slavery in Ireland” in the immediate aftermath of the event, the conference ultimately bore fruit for Sr Liz and Catholics concerned about our country’s management of the problem. But Sr Liz also pointed out that the same problems continue to persist due to the lack of coordinated strategic plan from the bishops.

“Well, I think the fact that we had two bishops present was helpful,” she said. “The Bishop of Cork was there, naturally, because it was in his home territory. And I think it may have been an eye opener because I know the bishops did refer to it in their own statement and we would link with them, but there hasn’t been any significant plan of action within the hierarchical Church, if I may say so.”


With many in Ireland oblivious to the scale of human trafficking in the country and how sophisticated and lucrative the industry is, Sr Liz believes that the key word when mentioning human trafficking in Ireland is “awareness” and it’s something we all need to develop if we have any chance of decisively overcoming the problem.

And I’m just thinking of, the increased number of migrants coming here. So maybe it’s getting harder to identify”

“I think the word ‘awareness’ is the key word because how aware are we of what’s happening?,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of certain situations described at the conference. But I think the main kind of energy needs to go into awareness raising now. And there is a new national plan that was launched by the Minister for justice, in November, and in fact this week going through the Dail is the legislation that’s going on a statutory basis called the National Referral Mechanism, whereby there will be more opportunities for people to pick up a phone to ring if you see something, if you are suspicious of something.

“So a word on the street with someone. I have a memory of a place I lived some years back and I could look in the kitchen window as I was going into where I was, and I could see four Asian girls and when I came back and I saw a man smoking a cigarette outside at night, I am still haunted by that. Should I have done something about it now? I’m more aware now than I was back then. But even the suspicion of something, and that’s where the Gardai working with the Santa Marta group is vital now. I think maybe, the training that we talked about, whether it’s through act, whether it’s through rumour, I think every parish needs to know these resources are readily available.

“And I’m just thinking of the increased number of migrants coming here. So maybe it’s getting harder to identify.”

Commenting on the seemingly endless number of tents being erected in Dublin’s city centre, Sr Liz “dreads” to see how the situation will evolve in the next 5 years and that she believes the act of living in a tent is “degrading”.

“Well, when I look around and hear on the news and see all of the tents, whether it’s down by the canal or wherever, and I don’t want to base it just in Dublin, just because I happen to live in Dublin, but how is their emotional life in any way recognised?,” she said. “I dread to think of how this will unfold in the next five years. Living in a tent is in itself degrading.”


Reflecting on the future role of the Church in anti-trafficking endeavours, Sr Liz insisted that it is essential we coordinate our efforts in the Church and that we all stand up and take collective responsibility as Christians to highlight an issue that she firmly believes is “a crime against humanity”.

We are all in this together as a Church and this is a crime against humanity”