Enslaved Under The Maple Leaf
The Flesh Trade Is Lurking In This Country–And It's Keeping Ahead Of Law Enforcement
January 20, 2008
The police raids went as many do.
Doors smashed in late at night. Hands thrown into cuffs. Computers and phones seized.
But the human trafficking charges laid against a group of people living in the Toronto area over the past nine days have offered a glimpse of an industry so clandestine in nature that one cannot even grasp its sickening reach in our own backyard.
On any given day, the flesh trade could supply the demand for child soldiers in Africa or housemaids in the United States.
Indian children may be bought and sold into bonded slave labour; people-turned-product may be imported to Saudi Arabia to work as camel jockeys or street beggars; or, as this latest case alleges, Eastern European women could be forced into sexual slavery in Canada.
Click here to find out more!While the United Nations has praised Canada for our efforts to root out the problem, U.S. experts say we aren't doing enough to combat the tricks of the human trafficking trade, which are as diverse as the unfortunate faces who fall victim to this multibillion-dollar industry.
Overwhelmingly, statistics show it's women and girls who are victimized by this sorry enterprise.
And much more often than not, it's for the ever-lucrative business of sexual slavery.
Earlier this month, a young Eastern European woman showed up at a downtown Toronto Police station saying she had answered an ad to model in Canada, only to be confined and forced into sexual slavery by a group of Russian men upon her arrival.
Her tale led to the discovery of another victim and the arrest of six people over the past week.
Theirs were the first charges laid by Toronto Police under Canada's 2005 anti-human trafficking legislation.
None of the alleged perpetrators were on police radar until the young woman shocked officers with her story. Without the necessary resources to proactively tackle the problem, police said there was little more they could do than wait for the victim to escape.
The recent case is not isolated.
One thing experts can agree on is that it's only the tip of the iceberg. How big that iceberg is, and whether we've even scratched the surface of it, is a whole other story.
“This is the absolute worst form of criminal behaviour,” says justice department counsel Nathalie Levman, who sits on the Federal Interdepartmental Working Group on Trafficking in Persons. “We're talking assault, sexual assault … (threats) used to extract labour services from another human being for the benefit of the trafficker.
“This flies in the face of all the tenets of our society.”
But human trafficking is nothing new.
The flesh trade has been around for thousands of years, but with the abolition of slavery it has moved deeper and deeper underground, attracting the most sophisticated of criminal networks.
The government has international documents from 1949 that talk about trafficking for prostitution, Levman says.
It wasn't until 2000, when the United Nations came out with its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, that the world began to take notice.
The following year, Canada's Bill C-11, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) was given royal assent. Within its pages, Section 118:
“No person shall knowingly organize the coming into Canada of one or more persons by means of abduction, fraud, deception or use of threat of force or coercion.”
Six months later, Canada signed on to and ratified the UN protocol.
But there were gaps.
Something was needed to address the totality of human trafficking — the common threads of the industry, such as when victims have their personal documents stripped of them by their captors.
So Levman and her colleagues drafted three separate offences into the Criminal Code: Trafficking in persons. Receive benefit from trafficking in persons. Withholding or destroying documents.
These amendments were given royal assent on Nov. 25, 2005 — the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Before these provisions, before IRPA and before the UN protocol, human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation “might have been simply considered to be a really bad pimping case,” Levman says.
That's not to say it was ignored.
From spring 2004 to February 2006 there were at least 25 convictions under various Criminal Code offences for human trafficking, notes a Canada-U.S. report presented at the 2006 Cross Border Crime Forum. As of February 2006, nine more cases were before the courts, including the first prosecution under IRPA's Section 118.
“It's incredible but true. Human beings are being bought and sold in Toronto in 1997,” a police officer told the Sun after an international ring selling Asian women into sexual servitude throughout Scarborough bawdy houses and massage parlours was smashed. “I thought I'd seen everything, but I've never seen anything like this.”
More than 10 years later, human trafficking is “huge in Canada,” says Louise Shelley, school of public policy professor at Virginia's George Mason University and director of the Terrorism, Trans-national Crime and Corruption Centre.
“Criminals always go where it's very easy, where they have the path of least resistance.”
Shelley points to Canada's notorious entertainment visas as part of the problem.
The fast-tracking of visas for foreign exotic dancers meant “an open door” for women coming into the country and the traffickers bringing them in, Shelley says.
On a Government of Canada website about the abolition of the visas, it's noted that “although foreign exotic dancers had traditionally come to Canada from the United States, by the late 1990s when far greater numbers were arriving from Eastern Europe, concerns about human trafficking began to emerge.”
But the visas weren't abolished until December 2004, after then-minister of citizenship and immigration Judy Sgro resigned amid accusations she'd granted a visa extension to a Romanian exotic dancer who worked on her election campaign.
“The department of human resources and social development rescinded its positive labour-market opinion of the exotic dancer industry,” the website says.
From 2004 to '06, the number of work permits and work permit extensions issued to foreign exotic dancers fell from 423 to 17.
“Even though those entertainment visas were ended,” Shelley says, “the whole criminal structures that developed under this were never broken up, so you (Canadians) have such well-developed long-term trafficking networks.”
Many women being trafficked into Canada are Ukrainian because of the large Ukrainian diaspora community in this country, Shelley says.
“They're women from Russia. They're women from Moldova. All over from the former Soviet Union … they're poor, they don't have the money, they don't have the embassy connections, they don't have connections with a travel agency. This has to be organized.”
Not all are taken against their will.
Canada-U.S. intelligence shows fees can be anywhere from $800 to $6,000 for someone to be willingly smuggled from Canada into the U.S. or $30,000-$60,000 to be smuggled from Asia to Canada.
But if there's an element of coercion or deception once they get here, then it's no longer a simple case of smuggling.
'PAY OFF THAT DEBT'
According to the Canada-U.S. report, a “smuggling fee” may be imposed and “victims are then forced by brutality and restricted movement to pay off that debt in the form of sweatshop work, commercial sex or other criminal activity.”
Shelley criticizes Canada for not being proactive enough in tackling the problem.
Leaf through a variety of Toronto newspapers to the classifieds advertising exotic massage parlours. “Most” of these are likely linked to human trafficking rings, Shelley says.
“There are some native Canadians (working in them), but there are not enough to supply this prostitution market that exists in your large cities.
“One of the things that police have been doing in England for over 10 to 15 years and some in the United States is to be following these ads, to find the whole prostitution organization,” she says. “That's how you get at it.”
Asked why Toronto Police don't investigate every advertised massage parlour, Det.-Sgt. Mike Ervick of the 52 Division vice squad answered: “We don't have the resources.
“If a similar (trafficking) situation where there's a bawdy house or a massage parlour comes to our attention, we will investigate it,” he said. “We don't have the resources to watch every bawdy house.”
Indeed, before the 21-year-old victim entered Ervick's police station on Jan. 10, none of the alleged perpetrators were on police radar.
Const. David Park of the RCMP's Human Trafficking National Co-ordination Centre in Ottawa says simply leafing through a newspaper won't cut it anymore.
“Organized crime or the criminal element are quick to evolve,” Park says.
Following massage parlour raids in the U.S. about four years ago that uncovered human trafficking networks, criminals learned that “if you use an overt form of human trafficking, the likelihood of getting caught is huge,” he says.
In late 2006, a series of raids were carried out around the Vancouver area on massage parlours, resulting in more than 100 arrests. Most of the parlour workers appeared to be Canadian citizens, and, while human trafficking does take place within our borders — Peel police have laid a handful of charges related to domestic trafficking — no trafficking charges were laid.
Nor were human trafficking charges laid by York Regional Police when they arrested eight Ontario residents last week following a three-month investigation into Hands from Heaven Spa in Vaughan.
The most common charge: Inmate of a common bawdy house.
“It is hidden,” Park says of the human trafficking industry. “People who perpetrate it want it to remain hidden and any overt form of publicity is against everything that they want.”
In 2004, the RCMP estimated 600-800 people were trafficked into Canada annually, in addition to the 1,500-2,200 persons trafficked through Canada into the U.S.
But these numbers fall flat because no one knows for sure how extensive the industry is.
“There are no numbers. No numbers at all,” Park says.
On a scale of very high, high, medium, low and very low, Canada was listed as low for a human trafficking country of origin, medium as a transit country and high as a destination country in the 2006 UN Trafficking in Persons Global Patterns report.
Only 3% of traffickers were said to be of North American nationalities.
The International Labour Organization estimates there are 12.3 million people in forced labour, bonded labour, forced child labour and sexual servitude at any given time, the U.S. state department notes in a 2006 report.
Other estimates range from 4 million to 27 million.
“We know for a fact that what we find out is the tip of the iceberg,” says Riikka Puttonen, a crime prevention officer for the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna. “When victims are deported back to their countries of origin, many of them have never been identified as victims, but rather they've been deported back as criminals because they violated immigration laws.
“Canada is really kind of an exemplary country in terms of tackling the problem,” Puttonen says, pointing to our “good piece of legislation” and the leadership role we have taken in developing international models.
Though human traffickers can be opportunistic individuals looking to make a buck — or 400,000 bucks like two Uzbekistan professors who trafficked two young women to Texas, Shelley says — the task of tackling such a problem is made all the more daunting by the nature of organized crime so often behind it.
“Where the profits are, that's where organized crime goes to,” Puttonen says. “An organized crime group that might be involved in, let's say, trafficking in firearms, could be involved in human trafficking the next year.”
“What it does feel like is that the problem is a huge one and the work is significant. It's absolutely integral,” Levman says. “And we just have to keep pushing forward and pushing forward together.
“We need to be aware that this occurs and that it's one of the most serious forms of criminal activity that takes place in our society. We mustn't think that this is something that doesn't happen even next to us.”