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Pity the slaves: UK bishops call for release of all immigrant detainees

By Cian Molloy - 13 April, 2020

St Josephine Bakhita

As the scourge of COVID-19 continues, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, has called on people to think especially of the plight of modern-day slaves and how their daily conditions make them special victims of the pandemic.

Trafficking in human chattel was made illegal in the UK in 1807 and there is much pride in the part the Royal Navy played in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade a century ago, but now there is growing disquiet at revelations of ‘hidden slavery’ in Britain today.

Slavery in Britain is to be found in the sex industry, in agriculture, in domestic ‘service’ in some of Britain’s wealthiest homes and in many walks of life.  Those caught in slavery have little chance of escape.

“While all our families and communities are affected, those held in slavery cannot self-isolate, social distance or receive medical care,” said Cardinal Nichols, speaking as president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales.

“Even in the midst of this crisis, human beings in our own country and overseas are still being exploited by criminals with contempt for their dignity or even health.

“Women and girls trapped in sexual exploitation are at particular risk. The pandemic is placing enormous pressure on the resources of police forces and civil society, reducing their capacity to rescue people from slavery and care for survivors. The scale of this challenge is unprecedented. Immigration detention centres, where survivors of modern slavery often find themselves, remain operating at great risk to all those detained.”

Asking Catholics to seek the intercession of St Josephine Bakhita and to pray for all those affected by slavery, the cardinal asked people to support the work of organisations “working directly to help those suffering the evil of slavery”.

He also linked the fight against slavery with a call made by Bishop Paul McAleenan to “save lives by releasing all those still held in immigration detention”. Cardinal Nichols commented that many of those held in immigration detention centres are survivors of slavery.

On behalf of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, Bishop McAleenan has written to the home secretary, Priti Patel, saying that hundreds of people remaining in detention are at extreme risk with limited opportunities for social distancing and self-isolating, contrary to the public health instructions of the government.

The bishop said: “These people have not been charged with any crime and do not pose a risk to the wider public. It is they who are now at risk of infection, due to their detention in close proximity to one another.

“After this pandemic, questions will inevitably be asked about steps taken by the government to protect the health and rights of the most vulnerable people, including whether the government applied its own instructions and guidelines to those for whom they were responsible.”

Cardinal Nichols commented: “We all have a responsibility to protect these vulnerable people.”

  • St Josephine Bakhita was born in Sudan and was stolen into slavery as a child who was bought and sold for the next 12 years. She escaped slavery when she was taken to Venice in 1888. In Italy, she encountered Christianity for the first time and joined the Canossian Sisters. She was canonised in St Pope John Paul II in 2000.

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