Addressing Trafficking in Women and Children in Canada

Posted 2003-10-14 by Denise Sayer | Jurisfemme Publications – Volume 22, No. 3, Fall 2003

Trafficking in women and girls is a significant global problem to which Canada is unfortunately not immune. It is an illegal yet highly profitable industry, which recruits, transports and sells human beings for the purpose of exploiting their labour and/or their sexuality. The victims of trafficking are overwhelmingly women and children. In its Brief on the Proposed Immigrant and Refugee Protection Act (Bill C-11), NAWL expressed concern that government initiatives to combat smuggling and trafficking activities as transnational crime might add to the abuse experienced by the victims of these activities. NAWL recommended that victims be provided with interim immigration relief in the form of minister's permits and that they be allowed to apply for permanent residence from within Canada on "humanitarian and compassionate" grounds.

Unfortunately, these recommendations were not followed and Canada continues to treat trafficked persons as criminals or "illegal immigrants". However, efforts are being made in Canada to address this issue. The Canadian Council for Refugees has undertaken a project, which seeks to assist immigrant and refugee-serving organizations to respond to the needs of trafficked persons and to work towards the eradication of forced labour in Canada.

The objectives of the project are ambitious, bringing together interested parties who will work towards providing concrete recommendations to help solve this complex and multi-faceted problem. As part of the Council's project, the Coalition in Ottawa for Refugees hosted a consultation in late September that sought to accomplish two key goals: to create an environment which facilitates the exchange of experience and knowledge and to develop resources to address the problem both locally and nationally. The conference explored the complex issues surrounding trafficking in four modules, looking at what drives the individual trafficked person, the supply and demand factors which facilitate trafficking, Canada's legal framework and potential improvements, and enforcement.

The first issue raised at the consultation was the definition of trafficking, which is distinguished from smuggling in migrants. While smuggling in migrants is characterized as a crime against the state as it violates immigration laws, trafficking is a crime against the person-a violation of human rights. The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime ("Palermo Protocol") contains the most widely used definition, defining trafficking in persons as:

"the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation."

Given the complexity of the issue and the diversity of voices expressed at the conference, the participants had many issues and recommendations for moving forward. The following is a summary of some of the key issues and recommendations.

1. Canada re-victimizes trafficked persons by failing to provide victim protection and criminalizing their actions. Canada has failed to domestically adopt the victim protection articles of the Palermo Protocol (article 6) and, while the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (R.S.C. 2001, c. C-27, ss. 117-121) criminalizes the actions of traffickers, it fails to provide protections for victims. Thus, in amending our legislation we must focus on providing victim protection.

2. Strict immigration laws fuel trafficking by taking away viable legal alternatives to individuals who face persecution or dire economic conditions in their countries of origin. An effective response to trafficking must include considerations to ensure the requirements for legal immigration and claiming refugee status are not unduly strict.

3. The age for child protection is not harmonized domestically or with Canada's international obligations. In addition, children are particularly vulnerable to the lack of safe return mechanisms, there is no guarantee that when they are returned it is to a safe and secure environment. Therefore, special consideration must be given for trafficked children and their increased risk of being re-trafficked.

4. There is currently a lack of funding in Ontario for support services. Lack of funding hurts our ability to provide an effective response, especially on the front lines. Trafficking is estimated to be a multi-billion dollar business run primarily by organized crime and groups combating it require funding to properly assist victims.

5. "No action on its own will resolve the trafficking situation. We need to work as a team at all levels: prevention, protection, monitoring and policing" (Patti Haughian & Robert Libbey, "Trafficking in Women and Girls: An Initiative of the Canadian Council For Refugees" (Ottawa Meeting Report, September 2003), unpublished, at page

6. It is important to see the "big picture" of trafficking and create a national network which encompasses various government, NGO and community groups to develop consistent policies. 6. Canadians profit from the labour of trafficked persons. In addition to the trafficked persons who enter the country illegally, there is a concern about government sanctioned, institutionalized exploitation of labour such as domestic workers, migrant workers and mail order brides. Combating demand is a critical part of the education and legal response.

Trafficking is a complex and daunting issue. The initiative taken by the Canadian Council for Refugees is a solid start to identifying the issues, the key players and potential solutions. It provides hope that this issue will gain prominence on the national legislative and funding agendas. However, it is important to focus on what Canada can do now and how we can make the necessary domestic changes as soon as possible. The identification of tangible domestic solutions is the most important step to assist in protecting victims of trafficking. This conference was a first step in that direction. The next step is a national meeting that will take place in Winnipeg in late November to follow up on the local meetings held across Canada.

Denise Sayer is a law student at Queen's University. Currently volunteering with NAWL, she is also actively involved in the Women & the Law club at Queen's.