Migration and Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is the sale and purchase of individuals either in whole or in part, the latter for those human organs that have a commercial value. Referred to as the modern form of slavery, human trafficking can occur as indentured labour or debt bondage. In both cases, the individual has contracted for the use of their person so that their actions are restricted far more so than when wages are paid for regular employment. Human trafficking can involve a domestic or international transaction or a combination of both, as occurs when individuals are brought to Canada to work under conditions where their freedom is limited.

Human trafficking has some similarities with illegal trafficking for drugs and liquor. A comparison illustrates how policies address the issues involved. All three activities are or have been prohibited but only under certain conditions. Because this creates a series of markets for the same product, opportunities arise to exploit the differences.

For example, during prohibition in the US from 1920 to 1933, alcohol could be sold legally with a prescription leading pharmacists like Walgren to expand their operations, as buyers used prescription sales to substitute for liquor previously bought through stores, bars and restaurants. At the same time, illegal breweries and distilleries sprung up to satisfy the demand, and liquor was imported illegally from Canada and other countries. St Pierre and Miquelon were transshipment points for liquor coming from Europe.

Liquor prohibition in Canada varied by province, with PEI enacting it in 1901, Alberta and Ontario in 1918 and Quebec in 1919. Policies related to consumption, production and selling of liquor. Ontario, for example, banned domestic sale and consumption but allowed production and export of alcohol which gave producers opportunities to sell to the US. Legislation resulted in reducing consumption but it tended to destroy society by other means. It stimulated the growth of organized and widespread criminal activity in the underground economy, a topic for numerous books, movies and television programs.

When prohibition ended, liquor consumption increased but related criminal activity declined. The same is now argued for marijuana entering North America mainly from Mexico and South America. If a (November 2010) California referendum legalizes the use of marijuana, one effect will be to undermine the criminal activity and gang warfare that occurs along the US-Mexico border. Regulating as opposed to banning the activity will not eliminate drug use, but it will result in revenues being collected by the government as opposed to criminal gangs. As it is, marijuana is available with a medical prescription in the same way that alcohol was during prohibition.

So far governments have abolished liquor prohibition, and there is pressure to legalize the distribution of certain drugs. What about human trafficking? Here the conditions are somewhat different. There is no lobby to legalize human trafficking. With liquor and drugs, the items traded are inanimate objects, which when consumed satisfy the needs of the user. One can impound and destroy the objects if found and prosecute those who engage in the illegal trade. For human trafficking it is persons that are being traded for the services which they provide often for prostitution or for other types of work such as harvesting agricultural products.

In the case of trafficking for prostitution there are two types of possible illegality, first for trafficking and second for prostitution. Human trafficking is universally banned but often hard to detect. In 2000, in Palermo, Italy, the United Nations adopted the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. Prostitution is treated in various ways in individual countries. Some countries like Canada do not ban prostitution but create conditions that make it difficult for the practice to flourish like banning soliciting. Australia permits prostitution to take place under regulated conditions. Sweden bans prostitution and prosecutes those who buy the services of prostitutes.

Human trafficking can be a purely domestic activity but frequently is associated with persons who enter the country and may be difficult to identify. Foreigners entering Canada as tourists, temporary foreign workers, students and as permanent residents including refugees can be involved in trafficking arrangements. Screening applicants is a difficult process but the police know where to look.

These illegal activities can be consumed domestically from domestic or imported products, or consumers can travel abroad to consume them in countries where prohibitions are lax or do not exist, thus sex tourism in South East Asia. While it is naïve to expect to alter a business as old as prostitution, it is worthwhile to consider ways to reduce human trafficking, a form of slavery that is universally condemned except by those who profit from it. Here Canada should examine its immigration and refugee process to learn how and when trafficking occurs. Benjamin Perrin’s recently published Invisible Chains, Underground World of Human Trafficking (Penguin 2010), provides a starting point for this examination.


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