BANGKOK -- Pope Francis urged more efforts to combat the "humiliation" of women and children forced into prostitution as he began a busy visit Thursday to Thailand, where human trafficking and poverty help fuel the sex tourism industry.
During an open-air Mass at Bangkok's national sports stadium, Francis denounced the scourges afflicting the poorest of the region. He urged Thais to not ignore the women and children trafficked for sex or migrants enslaved as fishermen and beggars.
"All of them are part of our family," he told an estimated 60,000 people in the stadium for the evening service. "They are our mothers, our brothers and sisters."
The United Nations considers Thailand a key trafficking destination as well as a source of forced labor and sex workers who are trafficked at home or abroad. The U.N. drug and crime agency said in a report this year that trafficking for sexual exploitation accounted for 79% of all trafficking cases in Thailand from 2014 to 2017. Of the 1,248 victims detected, 70% were underage girls, the report said, citing data from Thai authorities.
The U.N. says sex tourism fuels the trafficking of more victims, who sometimes are forced, coerced or deceived into sexual exploitation.
Francis' homily was the second time in a day that he referred to the plight of women and children forced into the sex trade. Earlier, Francis praised the Thai government's efforts to fight human trafficking in his first speech delivered at Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's Government House offices.
But he appealed for a greater international commitment to protect women and children "who are violated and exposed to every form of exploitation, enslavement, violence and abuse."
He called for ways to "uproot this evil and to provide ways to restore their dignity."Gallery: Pope Francis begins Asia tour in Bangkok
"The future of our peoples is linked in large measure to the way we will ensure a dignified future to our children," he said.
The U.S. State Department has faulted Thailand for failing to fully crack down on traffickers who induce young Thai girls into pornography, as well as the exploitation, including via debt bondage, of migrant workers in commercial fishing enterprises.
The Thai government has insisted it has made significant progress and has vowed continued cooperation with international bodies.
Prayuth didn't make any reference to the problem in his remarks to Francis, though he stressed that Thailand had made great strides in promoting human rights.
"We have sought to strengthen the family institution and ensure equal opportunities for all groups in society, especially women and children," he told Francis after a brief private meeting.
Francis has made the fight against human trafficking one of the cornerstones of his papacy, calling it a crime against humanity. Under his leadership, the Vatican has hosted several conferences on eradicating trafficking, featuring women freed from forced prostitution. And during his papacy, an international network of religious sisters, Talitha Kum, has gained greater prominence after decades of quiet efforts to rescue women from traffickers.
In his evening homily, Francis told the faithful that as missionaries, they cannot ignore the plight of those considered "unclean."
"Here I think of children and women who are victims of prostitution and human trafficking, humiliated in their essential human dignity," he said. "I think of young people enslaved by drug addiction ... I think also of exploited fishermen and bypassed beggars."
Today, Francis' agenda includes meetings with local Thai clergy, Asian bishops and separately a meeting with leaders of different Christian denominations and other faiths.
Throughout his stay, Francis has been accompanied by Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, his second cousin and an Argentine missionary who has lived in Thailand since the 1960s and is serving as his interpreter.
Information for this article was contributed by Emily Wang of The Associated Press.
A Section on 11/22/2019
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