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TORONTO, Jul 16 2012 (IPS) - The arrests last week of the three remaining perpetrators of the alleged Opapa human trafficking ring, which forced 19 people recruited from Hungary to endure long work days, poor living conditions and no pay in the Canadian construction industry, has cast a light on Ottawa’s new measures to combat the crime.
While some advocates argue the one-month-old programme is the most well-coordinated anti-trafficking effort among all stakeholders, others label certain aspects contentious and unfair.
For years, World Vision Canada urged a sweeping initiative targeting the crime both within Canadian borders as well as overseas because the two components are tied together, said Carleen McGuinty, a child protection policy adviser for the NGO based in Toronto.
The international development organisation also asked for a policy addressing labour trafficking because “for every person forced into sexual exploitation, nine are forced into labour,” said McGuinty.
As well, she told IPS, it was important that the government include boys and girls, the “most vulnerable to human trafficking”.
In the end, World Vision Canada was satisfied with a final product containing much of the “language” which will serve as a first step to tackling the crime, she added.
Released in June, the four-year plan will introduce Canada’s first integrated law enforcement team to fight trafficking; boost front-line training to identify and respond to human trafficking and enhance prevention in vulnerable communities; offer more support to Canadian and newcomer victims of the crime; and improve coordination with domestic and international partners combating the activity.
Technically, human trafficking differs from human smuggling because the transported individual has given no consent and is further exploited on arrival in the destination country. However, a soon-to-be-published paper by Canadian criminologist Yvon Dandurand states that people who are smuggled into a country often have not realised they are on the verge of being victimised.
In 2005, the Canadian government specifically prohibited trafficking in persons; previously, the law included offences like kidnapping, uttering threats and extortion.
Due to the clandestine nature of trafficking and the reluctance of victims and witnesses to come forward, it is difficult to make statements about the extent of the crime in Canada in relation to the number of victims, said Sgt. Julie Gagnon, a media relations officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), quoting the agency’s Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre.
However, human trafficking convictions and current investigations into human trafficking are proof that this crime is occurring within the country, Gagnon told IPS in an e-mail.
As of May, the RCMP was aware of 23 Canadian cases in which human trafficking charges were laid, she wrote. Forty-three people have been convicted in these cases, including 22 convictions for sexual exploitation, she said. The Canadian courts are now reviewing another 62 cases involving about 152 victims.
Ottawa’s 25-million-dollar blueprint to battle sexual exploitation and forced labour is not “a ground-breaking plan”, noted McGuinty, the child-protection expert, “and it hasn’t been hailed as such.” Yet, it finally coordinates the activities of federal government departments, provinces and NGOs and includes round tables allowing for stakeholder recommendations, she said.
“At least everyone can work from this, and we can hold our government to account,” McGuinty said, and added that she hopes the programme will deter human traffickers by illustrating Canada’s resolve to deal with the crime.
Yvon Dandurand, a criminologist at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C. and a senior associate at the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy in Vancouver, said the new federal action plan consists of many activities currently undertaken by government departments but which are now being integrated.
For instance, in response to the federal government’s new commitment to bolstering front-line training to tackle human trafficking and increase prevention in vulnerable communities, Dandurand told IPS that the Vancouver centre developed training packages for law enforcement eight years ago. But if indeed there are more cases involving victims reluctant to come forward, he added, investing more money in training makes sense.
“Depending on how this (new plan) is rolled out, it might be an improvement if things are accelerated or more resources are put into it,” he said, but it will not reduce the international dimensions of the crime.
Overall, trafficking is a “complex offence” requiring three major elements – intent, coercion, and lack of consent or deception – which is difficult to confirm, he noted. “Whereas it’s easier to prove that someone had a false passport, or that someone was sequestered and held against their will . . . and basically get evidence on related offences and get a conviction on that basis.”
A more controversial aspect of the revamped national human trafficking strategy was the government’s Jul. 4 announcement that Canadian businesses will be prevented from hiring temporary foreign workers in cases where there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect a risk of sexual exploitation or degrading work. Strip clubs, escort services and massage parlours are among the targets.
In an RCMP report on human trafficking, investigations carried out in the late-1990s found “strong indications” that women were recruited from Eastern Europe for non-sexual work but then made to perform in strip clubs and offer sexual services. Police, however, have been unable to “substantiate” the trafficking of foreign nationals in exotic dance clubs, though the possibility remains, according to the 2010 report.
The RCMP have confirmed one case in which a woman recruited from China for a position at a Canadian restaurant was later “forced to work in a massage parlour performing sex acts”, spokeswoman Gagnon noted.
Although human trafficking charges were laid in this case, the accused was ultimately convicted of other prostitution-related crimes, she added. She said the majority of human trafficking cases in Canada are connected to prostitution but do not involve foreign workers.
For the most part, it is clear that public opposition to the practice of doling out permits to foreigners intent on working in sex-related businesses “embarrassed” Ottawa, argued Dandurand, the academic. He said last week’s legal move is “more a political matter than a genuine victim-protection matter”.
Linking foreign strippers to human-trafficking victims has rattled the Toronto-based Adult Entertainment Association of Canada, which represents both establishments and workers. No one has considered how the 700 dancers, who are not prostitutes, will be victimised once they are stripped of their legal papers and lured “into the underground for these predators to exploit them . . . in prostitution rings,” warned executive director Tim Lambrinos.
“The women are not going to go home,” said Lambrinos, adding that legal action is now the only option for the association’s members. The women, many of whom send money to their families overseas, will now be “reluctant to report any abuses or improprieties because they’re here in Canada illegally”.
In the past, his association has posted notices offering toll-free phone numbers for women to contact if they are being held against their will, but he argued he has fielded no calls. It would be difficult to commit such a crime, he said, as dancers interact to a great extent with their colleagues and the public, and would be able to walk out of a club if they wish.
Mary Taylor, a former stripper of 21 years, believes the government’s new foreign-worker guideline is a positive move for both international and local dancers. The law may force club owners to improve working conditions in order to entice greater numbers of Canadian women to enter the business, she said.
In 1997, Taylor co-founded the Exotic Dancers Association of Canada, which recently became inactive due to funding challenges. She still, however, advocates for the rights of women in the trade and laments that the industry has gone from “burlesque entertainment to foreplay in public”.
As for criticism that distressed foreign dancers denied a work permit under new regulations will be forced to take jobs in a private massage parlour or “a hole in the ground”, she replied: “They can do that now anyway.”
Taylor, who urges increased government scrutiny of strip clubs and massage parlours, said she speaks regularly to dancers. In this capacity, she told IPS, she has heard stories about foreign workers in Toronto being denied their passports and locked overnight in clubs.
The RCMP’s 2010 report indicates that nations with a high unemployment rate are among the “common source countries” of trafficked victims, raising legitimate concerns that a declining global economy may drive more desperate people overseas toward risky situations rather than greener pastures.
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