Human trafficking in Vancouver
UBC law professor Benjamin Perrin says human traffickers will view the 2010 Olympics as the biggest business opportunity for them in decades.
By Magda Ibrahim
Sep 20 2007
Women become trapped in sex trade after being lured to city with false promises
Imagine being beaten, forced into sex work, and told youll be killed if you try to escape. The constant threat of violence means youre too scared to go to the authorities, but even if you did, theres little chance of retribution for your attacker.
This might sound like something that would happen in a third-world country, or during some bygone era, but its happening now in Vancouver, and is a reality for many victims of human trafficking.
Experts agree the problem is escalating, with the Olympics tipped to be a catalyst for a massive boom in trafficking of women into the citys sex trade from outside and within Canada. But despite numerous convictions of people involved in running human-trafficking rings in other countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., Canada has yet to prosecute a single person for the crime.
Vancouver is considered to be a hub for Pacific human trafficking, says Benjamin Perrin, an assistant professor who joined UBC Faculty of Law last month, and last year published influential research into the problem, which sparked changes to victims immigration rights. Traffickers will view the 2010 Olympics as the biggest business opportunity for them in decades. Any time you have an influx of foreign tourists and money, youll see a huge demand for the sex trade.
Luckily, weve been able to identify this as a problem, but unless enough resources are given to this, were not going to be able to stop it. The big concern is that traffickers have a sense of impunity, and they have good reason to be arrogant because Canada has yet to prosecute someone successfully.
Although Canadas very first human trafficking charges were laid against a Vancouver man in 2004 Michael Ng, who ran an East Vancouver massage parlour they were dismissed by B.C. Provincial Court Judge Malcolm MacLean earlier this summer after a year of testimony from two women who claimed Ng lured them to Canada from China with the promise of jobs as waitresses. Judge MacLean said the offence of human trafficking had not been proved beyond reasonable doubt, but Ng was found guilty of other prostitution-related charges and will be sentenced next month.
I cant understand why Canada hasnt successfully prosecuted a single person for human trafficking when you look at other countries like the U.S., Australia, and the U.K., says Perrin. Weve made the same commitments and been to the same conferences, but Canada has been all talk and no action. Were just beginning to turn the corner; were where other countries we consider ourselves in the same league as were 10 years ago. Weve had a decade of inaction on this and its allowed traffickers to profit; we need to make it more risky and less profitable for them.
Human trafficking is a very different beast from human smuggling, because the victims involved have often been tricked into leaving their own country (usually Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe) with promises of a better life, but then are forced into labour or sex work. Smuggling is the illegal migration of people, often for a large sum of money, but the relationship with the smuggler ends when the destination is reached.
Due to its clandestine nature, accurate statistics on the scale of the human-trafficking problem are elusive and often unreliable. While the RCMP estimates around 600 people are trafficked into Canada for sexual exploitation each year, the figures could well be much higher.
Most people who have been trafficked are too scared to go to the authorities because theyve been told they, or members of their family, will be injured or killed if they do. And because their documents, including passport, have often been taken away, many fear they will be treated as a criminal by the authorities.
Indeed, until last year, when Professor Perrin published his research, victims were often deported as they had no legal status in Canada. The federal government has since adopted a policy of allowing human-trafficking victims a temporary residence permit, which allows them to access basic healthcare and have the possibility of legal work.
Alice Lee, a crisis worker at the Vancouver Rape Relief and Womens Shelter, has provided assistance to hundreds of women, many of whom have been trafficked into the sex industry. A lot of these women are scared and confused; theyre not sure who they can trust, she explains. Theres the constant not knowing whether youre going to make it or not, which is a huge burden, and theres no way for us to guarantee that either.
A 19-year-old that Lee helped was one of almost 600 people to arrive in B.C. by boat from China in 1999 (about half were subsequently deported). The girl had paid $35,000 to come to Canada, based on the promise that she would work on a luxury cruise liner. After boarding the ship, she realized her mistake. She was by herself and had been threatened with violence against herself and her family, says Lee.
But the traffickers had made their demands clear, and despite the efforts of the shelter to find the girl longer-term housing, she disappeared. We assume shes in the hands of her traffickers and think shes working in the sex trade in New York, says Lee.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has completed a report on global patterns in human trafficking which notes that while the industry includes forced labour as well as sexual exploitation, sex work accounts for almost 90 per cent of trafficking.
In a society in which its still acceptable for men to pay for sex with women, the problem of trafficking will be almost impossible to eliminate, according to Lee Lakeman, of the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres. Its a billion-dollar industry, she says. Not a week goes by when we arent trying to help someone out of the sex trade, and a very high percentage of those will have been trafficked here.
Its the height of sexism to imagine that women can be reduced to commodities for men. We see people falling all over each other in the contradiction of wanting legalized prostitution but saying theyre against trafficking. But legalized prostitution creates the demand for trafficking thats where the profit is. Men have to stop creating the trade.
The fact that women are often terrified of what might happen to them if they try to leave their situation, or report their trafficker, means it is hard for police to identify the culprits and bring charges. In addition, Canadas Criminal Code amended in 2005 to include new human-trafficking provisions has very specific definitions of what constitutes the offence.
Detective Constable Michelle Holm, who works in Vancouver Police Departments Vice Unit, says she is constantly on the lookout for victims of human trafficking. I can understand why a girl might be hesitant to call the police, but I hope were getting the message out that its the right thing to do, she says. It will always be a problem to get the victims testimony because the girls stories are often very convoluted and may span a few years; it can be hard for us to get our heads around how they ended up here.
We have to be pro-active in looking for them, and weve been successful in rescuing girls from situations where theyre being exploited. But in terms of finding those who fit into the definitions in the Criminal Code, its harder.