Small group discussion during the 15th South East Asia Major Superiors (SEAMS) Congress held at the Church of St Ignatius.Small group discussion during the 15th South East Asia Major Superiors (SEAMS) Congress held at the Church of St Ignatius.

Some 30 Religious from the region visited the Geylang red-light district as part of a congress on human trafficking

Seeing girls earning a living as sex workers in Geylang brought sadness to Vietnamese Sr Tin Nguyen.

The girls, who were of a foreign nationality, looked “very young” and they looked ashamed, the Sister of Providence of Portieux nun told CatholicNews.

She managed to speak briefly with some of them and even prayed with them as some of the girls were Catholic.

“I felt sad when I saw the … girls standing there,” said the nun, who works with young people in Vietnam and organises life skills training.

Sr Tin Nguyen was among over 30 Religious superiors from Southeast Asia who visited the Geylang red-light district on April 16 evening as part of the 15th South East Asia Major Superiors (SEAMS) Congress.

The congress, held at the Church of St Ignatius, lasted from April 15-19. Its theme was Human Trafficking in South East Asia.

During the visit to Geylang, congress delegates spoke briefly to the sex workers and handed them cakes. However, they did not ascertain if the girls had been trafficked.

Walking through the lanes of Geylang was like “walking into an unreal world”, said Malaysian Sr Agatha Ling, adding that the place was a far cry from what one usually associates with modern and developed Singapore.

Sr Ling, from the Sisters of St Francis of Sarawak, described the sex workers as being stripped of human dignity, begging for customers and “letting people come and choose you”.

Basically, it is a “marketplace”, agreed Jesuit scholastic Matthew Tan, who has visited the area on previous outreach programmes.

The congress saw speakers discussing various aspects of the human trafficking issue, and participants analysing the problem in Southeast Asia from the sociological, legal, political and theological perspectives.

In a press release, congress chairman Jesuit Fr Colin Tan said the decision to focus on human trafficking in this year’s congress “was unanimous as it has become a growing concern of the Church’s social mission”.

“Human trafficking is an issue that the Church takes very seriously,” said Fr Tan, who is Regional Superior of the Jesuit Region of Malaysia-Singapore.

He noted that Pope Francis, in his Easter message, said that human trafficking is “the most extensive form of slavery in this 21st century”.

In its concluding statement, the congress said that “participants emerged with a strong conviction that we cannot continue to address human trafficking in our present piecemeal way. There is an urgent need for greater networking and collaboration”.

The congress’ action plan includes enhancing collaboration among congregations, conferences and lay associations in Southeast Asia through the setting up of a common database; engaging NGOs, other religions and governments; and exploring the feasibility of setting up shelters for trafficked persons.

Archbishop Nicholas Chia celebrated the congress’ opening Mass on April 15 together with Coadjutor Archbishop William Goh and Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli.

The next congress is expected to be held in Thailand in 2016.

By Darren Boon
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