To mark St. Bakhitas Day and the World Day of Prayer for Victims of Human Trafficking earlier this month, we collaborated with author David Lohan and the Society of African Missions (SMA) to host a webinar: The Weaponisation of Cultural Beliefs in Human Trafficking. The aim of the webinar was to delve into the stark realities of human trafficking and explore the critical intersection of cultural beliefs with modern-day slavery, bringing awareness to an often overlooked aspect of this heinous crime.

This event was not just an academic discourse, it was about individuals, particularly women and girls, whose lives are irrevocably altered by the cruel intentions of those who prey on the vulnerable. It was a fervent plea for awareness and action against an atrocity that strips away the essence of human liberty and dignity. Human trafficking exists on a global scale, and is very much a reality here in Ireland.

We were introduced to the dark underbelly of human trafficking, and how the exploitation of cultural practices, specifically Juju—a belief system deeply rooted in some West African countries—was highlighted as a tool for manipulation and control. David’s research underscores the alarming truth that human trafficking is not an isolated phenomenon but a major criminal enterprise that thrives on the exploitation of human vulnerabilities. He illuminated the reality of victims ensnared in this trade, emphasising that human trafficking is a blatant crime against human rights.

David went on to share the journey of Joy, representing a victim whose experience mirrors the harrowing stories of so many. Her ordeal, marked by ritualistic oaths and the terror of ‘the switch,’ gave a face to the abstract horror of this crime, providing a humanising glimpse behind the veil. His detailed exploration into the mechanics of trafficking networks further revealed a chillingly efficient system of exploitation: a network of recruiters, Juju priests, intermediaries, and racketeers operating with chilling efficiency and ruthlessness.

Adding a powerful dimension to the discussion, Ejiro Ogbevoen, founder of Black Therapists Ireland, offered a compelling perspective on David’s findings. Speaking from her unique perspective as a Nigerian woman, psychotherapist and someone intimately connected to one of the regions most affected by these practices, Ejiro delved deeper into the psychological and cultural intricacies that underpin trafficking. Her insights illuminated the profound impacts of cultural beliefs, not only on the victims but also on the community’s perception and response to these crimes.

Ejiro pointed out the nuanced and often overlooked signs of ritualistic ceremonies present within Ireland; practices deeply rooted in cultural traditions that remain invisible to the untrained eye. She emphasised the significance of seemingly mundane objects, such as a piece of red cloth, which, while innocuous to many in Ireland, carry layered meanings and are indicative of the complex rituals involved in Juju. She explained that these signs, concealed in plain view and go unnoticed by ordinary citizens, symbolise the extreme control and fear traffickers exert over victims.

By shedding light on these obscure signs and their implications, Ejiro’s contribution underscored the importance of cultural competence in the fight against human trafficking. Her insights remind us that to effectively combat this crime, we must look beyond our own cultural lenses and understand the deeply ingrained beliefs and practices that influence both the perpetrators and their victims.

This discussion underscored the complexity of human trafficking as a crime that goes beyond borders and cultural understanding and highlighted the urgent need for a broader understanding and recognition of these cultural markers among professionals in Ireland. We were offered insight into  broader implications of trafficking, including the collusion of corrupt officials and the desperate circumstances that lead families to push their own into the maw of this beast, often under the guise of seeking a better life.

Victims are held captive not only by their captors, but by their fear of breaking the oath covenant — believing they might face death, infertility, or worse. This belief system, deeply ingrained and exploited by traffickers, underscores the psychological chains that bind victims beyond their physical captivity.

In his summation of the webinar, Brian O’Toole from the Presentation Sisters Justice Desk quoted the words of Pope Francis, “It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit,” reminding us that Human Trafficking is a human rights issue.

He made reference to the Third National Action Plan to Prevent Human Trafficking, launched in November last year by Minister Helen McEntee, stating that while there is mention of threats being used in the crime of Human Trafficking, there is no specific reference to how cultural beliefs are used as a means of coercion, intimidation and manipulation. He suggested that this might be something that could be taken up in the future.

Pope Francis’s urges us all to take action to combat trafficking. “Let us pray fervently and work proactively for this cause, the defence of human dignity. While we know the fight against trafficking “can be won,” he suggested, “it is necessary to get to the root of the problem and eliminate its causes.”

In remembering St Bakhita and heeding the call of Pope Francis, we are reminded of our shared humanity and the imperative to protect the most vulnerable among us. As we move forward, let us hold onto the belief that together, we can make a difference in the lives of those who have been forced into the shadows, and work towards a future where freedom and dignity are inalienable rights afforded to all.

We are profoundly grateful for the contributions of both David and Ejiro. Their presentations not only enriched our understanding of the issue but also reinforced the critical role of cultural awareness in our collective efforts to protect the vulnerable and pursue justice for victims. We are equally grateful to Sr Eilis Coe RSC who initiated this event, and to all those involved in the planning process.

Now that we have been made aware of the realities, what are we going to do? How are we going to make a difference? Each of us is called upon to open our eyes to the suffering that lurks in the shadows, to educate ourselves and our communities about the signs of trafficking, and to commit to a world where freedom and dignity are not just ideals but realities for all.

Below you will find the webinar recording, links to the resources shared by David, as well as links to some of organisations that are working to combat Human Trafficking here in Ireland. Use them, share them and if you see something, say something.

Further Resources Shared by David Lohan:

Organisations working in the field of Human Trafficking

These organisations provide a wide range of services, from legal advice and psychological support to advocacy and awareness campaigns. They play a crucial role in the fight against human trafficking in Ireland, supporting victims and working towards preventing this crime.

Additionally, for overarching coordination and resources, the Department of Justice’s anti-trafficking website, Blue Blindfold, offers comprehensive information and support resources: Blue Blindfold

The Department of Justice plays a key role in coordinating the government’s response to human trafficking, working closely with various departments, agencies, and NGOs. It also provides annual funding to organisations working in this area and represents Ireland in international forums on human trafficking.