A spotlight on human trafficking

By in Features/Opinions

sextraffickingSlavery is said to have been abolished long ago, however the statistics on human trafficking tell us otherwise. Trafficking objectifies human beings who are put up for sale and exploited. As millions are bought and sold worldwide — Canada included — human trafficking is nothing more than modern day slavery.

Human trafficking has two main purposes: forced labour and commercialized sexual exploitation, both of which are against the person’s will. Not only is this a serious crime, but human trafficking is also a massive violation of human rights affecting men, women and children in all parts of the world.

Take Meena Hasina’s story told in Half the Sky, a book by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Meena recounts being eight or nine when she was kidnapped and then trafficked into prostitution in the north Indian state of Bihar.

Meena is from a poor family on the border of Nepal. After being kidnapped, she was sold to a tribe called the Nutt Clan who runs the local sex trade in Bihar. She was kept in a rural home until she reached puberty and at the age of 12 was taken to work in a brothel.

In Half the Sky, Meena recalls fighting back and crying when male clients would come, and then finally succumbing to the brothel owner’s demands once she was drugged, beaten and threatened with swords. She was never paid a cent of any of the money she made — nor were any of the other girls she lived with — and they were never allowed out of the brothel.

Meena’s story tells of the despair and hopelessness that accompanies sex trafficking. Quoting from Half the Sky, Meena said, “I used to think that it was better to die than to live like this. Once I jumped from the balcony, but nothing happened. I didn’t even break a leg.”

An exact number of how many people are affected by trafficking worldwide is difficult to pinpoint. According to nonprofit organization Free the Slaves, estimates often range from 21 to 36 million people, but because trafficking involves moving persons, the numbers fluctuate. This estimate includes both forced labour and sex trafficking.

Although trafficking does affect both males and females, 98 per cent of sex trafficking victims worldwide are women and girls according to the Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada fact sheet. In Canada specifically, girls are often targeted for trafficking around the ages of 13 and 14.

The word “trafficking” causes many to associate it with moving people across national borders, but trafficking can also include no travel at all. The main features that define labour and prostitution as trafficking are the use of force and control, including violence, threats, intimidation, manipulation, fraud, deception and abduction.

To draw victims in, trafficking involves the use of false promises. The most common are offers of a job in another country, a better life or a potential romantic relationship. Traffickers may look for victims in public places, major areas of transportation like bus stops or train stations and also online.

In international settings, traffickers promise better jobs to the person and then confiscate their passport, travel documents, valuables and threaten their family — all which effectively isolates the person. With no resources or means to gain help or leave, the person and their family alike are often left with no options — usually families have little money themselves to begin with. This makes it almost impossible for the person to leave the situation.

Meena is one of the few who actually escaped.

She became pregnant while in the brothel in Bihar and had a baby girl; no condoms were ever used or required, leading to higher chances of pregnancy for all the girls there. Later on, Meena became pregnant again — this time having a son — but the brothel owner took away both of her children in effort to hold Meena hostage and to prevent her from escaping.

After going to the police and receiving no help, Meena was warned that the brothel owner had decided to kill her due to her resistance, which led Meena to flee, leaving her children behind. Not long after, the brothel owner found her and agreed to let her stay where she was, on the condition that she would prostitute herself and that he would come to collect the money at various times.

Meena ended up getting married and had two children with her husband, but she continued to sell sex in order to make money for the brothel owner. On multiple occasions she visited the brothel to try and save her son and daughter whom she had left behind. She could not get them back — they would likely also be forced to work in the brothel.

Trafficking can tear families apart and has lasting effects where it occurs. When Meena went back to visit her family, neighbours told her that her mother had cried continually after Meena’s disappearance, gone mad and then died. Her father was stunned to see her, shocked that she was even alive.

Meena’s story has a more hopeful end than most — many of those trafficked do not find escape and the majority of trafficking stories often go unheard. The amount of trafficking offenders who are charged and punished for their actions is incredibly low and survivors’ reintegration into society is in itself a difficult issue.

Slavery is illegal nearly everywhere in the world, yet it continues to take place. Contrary to the myth that trafficking is an outside-of-Canada injustice, the Canadian Women’s Foundation reported that 2,872 women and girls were trafficked in Canada in 2013. Of those trafficked in Canada, 93 per cent are Canadians and are not from other countries.

In an email interview with Joy Smith — a Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul and one of Canada’s leading human trafficking activists — Smith outlined the extent of human trafficking in Canada. Most forced labour trafficking cases in Canada involve foreign victims, whereas sex trafficking cases in Canada usually involve Canadians.

The earnings from one person trafficked in Canada can range from $300 to $1,500 a day and victims are controlled through rape, assaults, coercion and threats to family members.

However, it was not until 2012 that Canada’s first forced labour case was completed. A Hungarian organized crime family in Hamilton trafficked 19 Hungarian men to work in construction. The men were forced to work nonstop, meanwhile they were held in captivity in a basement, threatened with violence and fed only scraps of food.

Police found immigration documents, work permits, chequebooks and debit cards in the drawer of one member of the family’s house in a search. In another, they found documents under a mattress. Nine people were charged with human trafficking in this case and all of them pleaded guilty.

This was one of the first cases to result in conviction in Canada and because of it, rates of human trafficking convictions in Canada have nearly doubled since then. Although human trafficking has been a criminal offense in Canada since 2005, the Canadian government launched its first action plan to combat trafficking in 2012.

Unfortunately, many Canadians remain largely unaware of human trafficking, assuming that it is something that does not occur in Canada.

“Since it is such a vicious and condemned crime, perpetrators naturally seek to keep it hidden from public view,” said Smith. “The Canadian public is starting to become more aware but there still is a significant attitude of ‘it’s not happening here.’”

The sad reality is that human trafficking is happening here. Trafficking is most likely to occur in large urban centres in Canada and non-Canadian victims are most likely to be brought from parts of Asia or Eastern Europe. Foreign victims face large challenges: they are usually alone in the country, speak other languages and may either be suspicious of the police or do not realize they are a victim of trafficking in the first place.

The Government of Canada has pledged itself to four pillars to end human trafficking: prevention of trafficking, protection of victims, prosecution of offenders and partnership with others to end trafficking, both internationally and nationally. Recent Canadian legislation — namely Canada’s new prostitution law Bill C-36 — may help to reduce cases of sex trafficking.

Smith believes that there is a direct link between prostitution and sex trafficking. With Bill C-36, the buying of sex becomes illegal, which will make a difference to sex trafficking.

“If Canada wants to seriously reduce sex trafficking, it must target those who drive prostitution through demand, namely, the johns. It must also target those who profit from and facilitate it, namely, the pimps,” said Smith. “That is why Bill C-36 would make buying sex illegal for the first time and it would significantly strengthen provisions against pimps and traffickers.”

Legalizing prostitution often opens up the doors for a larger sex trade and market, giving pimps the means to openly sell sex and profit off of prostitutes. Therefore by criminalizing the buying of sex, rates of sex trafficking may see a hopeful downturn.

This is a very contested point however, seeing as many prostitutes in Canada have denounced the new bill, saying it does nothing to eliminate stigma or promote their safety as they will continue to do their work. The discourse surrounding Bill C-36 comes out of concerns for what is best for the sex worker — something that prostitutes and lawmakers evidently don’t agree on.

The new law may see positive results for sex trafficking in Canada however and the end of human trafficking should be a national priority for Canada beyond the new prostitution laws. Another improvement would be for Canadians to become more aware of human trafficking in the first place.

“Canadians need to be educated and aware. Some of the most prominent cases in Canada came to light because a citizen noticed something was wrong and instead of looking away, they took action,” said Smith.

The story of Genevieve from Invisible Chains by Benjamin Perrin — a book that focuses on human trafficking in Canada — reveals that there are many conditions under which trafficking can occur, which is why education is so crucial.

In 2006 Genevieve was offered a modelling job — she was just out of a long-term relationship and had been injured in a motorcycle accident which made her unable to work, so she willingly agreed to model.

The job was to pose for an album cover being produced by an independent record label in Montreal. The vice-president of the label and director of the photoshoot – “Jackie” — soon became her boyfriend.

The pair had a difficult time with managing their finances however and moved to Toronto where Genevieve began to work as an exotic dancer. Jackie suggested she also offer sexual “extras” at strip clubs and while she initially agreed to do so, after a few days she decided she would rather not.

Jackie responded to her decision with abuse — he slapped her, threw an ashtray in her face, took away her car and beat her with a broom.

A month later, Jackie was selling Genevieve for sex at various strip clubs several days a week. If she showed any resistance, Jackie used violence and physical abuse, often leaving her injured and covered in bruises. On a trip to Montreal to visit her parents, Genevieve called the police service and Jackie was later arrested. By selling Genevieve for sex, he had earned $20,000 in three months, which he had kept all for himself.

The stories of Genevieve, Meena and the Hungarian workers illustrate that human trafficking takes no singular form. It can occur in many different contexts, affect people of all genders and ages and while it is difficult to break free of, it is not impossible.

While the stories are different, they all have one thing in common: exploitation. Someone else benefits from the forced labour or sex of another person and the person becomes trapped in the system, mistreated and abused. While human trafficking may not be “slavery” in the way we typically think of the word, the definition of a “slave” is someone who is owned by another and is forced to work for that person without pay.

Human trafficking is modern day slavery in every sense of the word and has no place in society.

Naomi Zurevinski / Opinions Editor

Graphic: Stephanie Mah / Graphics Editor

  • john

    There is a big difference between Human Trafficking and Sex Trafficking. Many of the women who offer adult companionship do so in an independent fashion. While obviously human trafficking is wrong, Canada has a thriving ‘legal’ prostitution market. I feel this article should of focused more on the local or western Canada prostitution market, and how this is related or affected by human trafficking.