Human Trafficking in Canada

Mention of slavery conjures up the North Atlantic slave trade, especially the slaves, shipowners, and those who bought and profited from the trade. Discussion then moves to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and slavery later on. History books reveal less about other aspects such as where else in the world slavery occurred, where slaves came from and who profited as suppliers as opposed to buyers of slaves. For example, Zanzibar on Africa’s east coast developed as a port for the transshipment of slaves from Africa to Persia and the Indian subcontinent.

The fact is that slavery has never been and probably never will be abolished. The contours of slavery today seldom make headlines. It is left to the actions of dedicated researchers and NGO’s with some assistance from governments and international organizations to focus attention on modern day slavery.

Benjamin Perrin has done this in his recently published Invisible Chains, Underground World of Human Trafficking (Penguin 2010). A law professor at UBC, Perrin reminds us that slavery is never abolished, but often morphs into different ways of achieving similar ends.

Indentured labour and debt bondage are two current forms of slavery that flourish throughout the world. Prostituting women and children, mainly girls, can be lucrative forms of commerce in developed as well as developing countries. Perrin carefully documents how human trafficking occurs in Canada and provides us with a wake-up call, especially as slavery can take place in our own neighbourhoods. He ends with a quotation by William Wilberforce in a speech to the British parliament, May 12, 1789 calling for the abolition of slavery “Having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know.” The same can be said for those who read Invisible Chains.

As with any activity that is illegal and flourishes in the underground economy, the numbers of trafficked persons are rough estimates. There is often confusion as to whether the numbers relate to the stock or annual flow of enslaved persons. An oft quoted figure is that there are between 12 and 27 million people enslaved in the world. A report of 600,000 to 800,000 persons trafficked internationally, and 17,500 trafficked into the US are probably annual flow figures compared to the estimated stock of 27 million. Another study states,

“According to UN estimates, about 2.5 million people from 127 countries have been trafficked to 137 countries for purposes such as forced labour, sexual exploitation, the removal of organs and body parts, forced marriages, child adoption and begging.”

Again what period the 2.5 million refers to is unclear, but what is apparent is that trafficking is an active business which for some is very profitable, while leading to enslavement and possibly death for the victims.

Invisible Chains has a Canadian focus. It includes actual cases of children and others trafficked for prostitution, how the business is conducted in Canada and measures taken here and abroad to address the situation. It concludes with proposals for an action plan. There are many, with the list identifying the pressure points where action may be effective and who might initiate it. This is not to say that there are no groups already actively involved, but they are dispersed and results will only occur if someone takes the lead and provides a focus. Human trafficking is not a problem with an obvious and quick solution, but uncoordinated efforts may retard progress.

Issues to examine in Canada include the dysfunctional asylum-refugee process which is used by traffickers to bring in potential victims. For example, it should be possible to monitor those who arrive at Canadian ports of entry asking for asylum, including what happens to the adults and children who arrived in British Columbia by boat this summer. The announcement by the government on October 22, 2010 to introduce the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act is an initiative to address problems with the refugee process which involves human trafficking.

Understandably most of the public attention is placed on the victims. It is inconceivable to many that in some instances parents would deliberately sell their children into prostitution as a way of supporting their families. But this occurs and forces us to examine economic conditions in other parts of the world. Closer to home Perrin documents the cases of girls from aboriginal families that are engaged in child prostitution.

Invisible Chains draws attention to those who profit from the trade. This requires a review of both the supply and demand for the services being provided and where in the supply chain pressure can be exerted. Differences arise according to the type of services, prostitution versus general labour in industries such as agriculture, construction and homecare.

Take prostitution which is legal and regulated in some countries. Demand originates with clients willing to pay for the services. Supply is organized by those who manage to kidnap, coerce or cajole persons to provide it. Suppliers advertise listed under escort services in the yellow pages and on the internet where social networking sites like Facebook and Craigslist provide low cost means of advertising. The number of entries in the yellow pages has shrunk as greater use is made of the internet. The venues for supplying the services may be clubs, cars, apartments and hotel rooms. Customers are members of the public whose reputations would be adversely affected if their actions were publicized.

These links in the supply chain are recognized in the development of public policy. While Invisible Chains provides a wealth of information about human trafficking both in Canada and abroad, one area of particular interest is the comparative policy approach pursued in Belgium, Italy, US, Sweden and Australia.

Most of these countries focus on two concerns, providing assistance to the victims and fighting against human trafficking. While some punish those who provide sex, Sweden criminalizes those who purchase it. This can extend to sanctioning acts undertaken abroad where sex is bought in vacation locations. Australia legalizes prostitution while regulating it. For example it is an offense for people to be sold for sex if they have a sexually transmitted disease. No similar sanction applies to the purchaser. Some human trafficking still occurs in Australia because part of the industry operates in the underground economy.

Invisible Chains provides an excellent survey of human trafficking with emphasis on Canada as well as providing references to source materials.


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