Oct. 31, 2012 - Issue #889-Human Trafficking Problem
Alberta’s dirty little secret
Detection of human trafficking picking up on increasing numbers
Alberta has a sore; an open wound that's been covered with dirt for too long and is now oozing out for others to see. The ailment is human trafficking and it's not just a few isolated incidents—it's a web.
In this boom-town province, countless victims of the $32 billion a year global industry are forced to give their bodies, their time, their sexuality and their dignity to men and women who treat them like property and make an enormous profit from their pain. However, what you think you know about human trafficking might not completely match up with what actually happens in Alberta.
"People see the movie Taken and they think that that's what exists in Canada. I'm not going to say that doesn't exist in Canada, but it's not as prevalent if it is happening," says Cpl. Nicole Dawood of the RCMP's Immigration and Passport Unit for the northwest region.
Taken is about a young American woman vacationing in Europe who is kidnapped to work as a sex slave. Dawood says the RCMP is actually seeing a trend of some women who come to Canada and choose to be involved in the sex industry—particularly Asian women. She says because prostitution is not acceptable here, it's easy for us to wonder who would choose that line of work. "Yet, we didn't grow up where they grew up. We don't know what their history is. We don't know what's acceptable there and what isn't," Dawood adds.
Poverty is one of the main drivers of international human trafficking, and, in the case of sex trafficking, many women are kept captive by threats from their traffickers that they will tell their families back home what they've been doing in Canada. And in countries where sexual purity is important, that would mean being treated as an outcast if she ever returned.
Andrea Burkhart, executive director of ACT Alberta—a non-profit group that links different organizations together to fight human trafficking—has her own take on Taken and sensationalized portrayals of human trafficking.
"It's not women in handcuffs. It's not what you see in the movie Taken ... That might happen, but if that's all we're looking for, then we're going to miss all these other cases."
These other cases of sex trafficking are right under our noses, often in the form of brothels and massage parlours. The details of women trapped in sex trafficking are lurid, and Jacqui Linder, registered psychologist and executive and clinical director of The Chrysalis Anti-Human Trafficking Network, has seen how dark it can be from sessions with her clients.
"We know now in Edmonton that there are foreign nationals working in massage parlours that sure look like they've been trafficked," says Linder, adding that the evidence from police who inspect the brothels points to the women living in the same rooms they service customers in.
"So can you imagine that you've had to service—either through full intercourse or through various other forms of sexual service—a bunch of strange men and when they all leave, you have to climb into that bed at night and sleep and wait for them to come back, with the smell of strangers on your sheets?" Linder asks, adding that there is an absolute annihilation of the self that occurs when people are put into slavery—either sexual or labour. "They are subjugated to abuse, they are battered, they are insulted, they are hurt physically, starved, they're made to feel less than, so it breaks down their confidence; it breaks down their sense of self which then manifests as clinical depression and suicide ideation and post-traumatic stress disorder and a profound soul-consuming shame."
Labour trafficking is even more rampant in this province than sex trafficking. In seven cases out of 10, Dawood says the RCMP is dealing with labour rather than sex. In fact, Alberta's first human-trafficking conviction came just last month when three Albertans—including an Orthodox priest—were charged with trafficking 60 Polish welders and machinists in St Paul, Alberta. But the case dates back to 2005 – '06—it's taken that long to make its way through the investigation and court process. Because human trafficking was only introduced to the Criminal Code in 2005, the courts are still testing out the laws. Investigations are time consuming and involve a lot of police resources. In addition to that, so much of what happens in court is dependant on victim testimony and there have been some trials that have fallen apart because victims don't want to testify. Sometimes it's fear of retaliation; sometimes they just want to go home. And oftentimes they don't even see themselves as victims of human trafficking.
"Maybe you come from a country where human-rights violations are the norm; or maybe you come from a community where you do not trust the police. I think abuse can get normalized. I've met trafficked people who didn't see that what happened to them was a problem," Burkhart says. "There were workers I've met who had the work run out so they had to leave, but they wouldn't have come forward for help because they wouldn't have been able to identify that what was happening to them was a crime. And I'm talking situations where people were locked in warehouses, not paid, had their passports taken and not allowed to call their families, working 18-hour days—pretty extreme situations."
When Canada's National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking was released this past June, the only two provinces named specifically as labour trafficking locations were Alberta and Ontario. Trafficking cases have involved foreign nationals from the Philippines, India, Poland, China, Ethiopia, Mexico, Thailand and Hungary.
The labour crunch in Alberta has made the demand for workers in both skilled and unskilled positions an anomaly. "When you bring more skilled workers in, it's going to increase the demand for people in restaurants, in hotels, things like that. So when you see a spike in skilled labour, you're going to see a spike in unskilled labour as well," Dawood says.
If the demand can't be met locally, employers seek a Labour Market Opinion to bring in foreign workers. While not all foreign workers are victims of trafficking, it does happen. Burkhart says ACT has noticed that wherever there are increases in migrant labour around the world, there are increases in trafficking too and Alberta is no exception.
The number of trafficking victims is going up in Alberta, but Burkhart says that doesn't mean the problem is getting worse; rather, awareness is growing as cases are being identified and people are coming forward for help. "There will come a time when obviously we want to see the numbers go down, but in some ways it's like looking at cancer diagnosis," Burkhart suggests. "If you think the rates are going up it could be because cancer is going up, but it also could be because diagnosis tools are improving. I think in the case of trafficking, our diagnosis tools are improving."
The stories the RCMP hears from victims are almost textbook now. Dawood says the complaint they hear most often is that a person is brought in to work and all of a sudden their working conditions change and they're told they'll only be paid half of what they were originally told and will have to live in the employer's home and pay rent.
"We rarely ever see abusers in international cases where you have, let's say, a Caucasian person abusing Indian people. It's usually Indian people abusing Indian people because, first of all, they know the language, they know best how to get and manipulate those people," Dawood adds. "One of the problems we have with getting people to testify is, 'If I testify, I'm putting my family at risk back home. How can you as police here protect my family in India?' And really, that's a good question, because how can we?"
Bill C-452 was introduced to Parliament on October 16 by Bloc MP Maria Mourani as an Act to amend the Criminal Code (exploitation and trafficking in persons) and would, among other things, take the burden off of victims to testify and presume that the people harbouring exploited people are indeed guilty. Dawood says that amendment would be fantastic as an investigation itself can take up to a year before it's presented to the Federal Crown and testimony has been so important for laying charges. Things like presumed guilt are big steps for dealing with this massive issue.
Linder believes everyone has a choice to make when it comes to dealing with human trafficking: "I have a choice as a citizen of the land: I can stand on the sidelines and succumb to bystander effect in despair and helplessness and wring my hands and think there's nothing that can be done, or I can roll up my sleeves and get in the game."
Shining a Light:
An Evening with
Thu, Nov 8, 2012 (7:30 pm)
Westin Hotel, $30
A strong believer in the power of grassroots organizations to make change happen, CBC broadcaster Brian Stewart will be giving a talk about his experiences as a foreign correspondent and witnessing the scourge of human trafficking firsthand.
Vue Weekly: How did breaking the story about child slavery in Sudan in 1989 impact how you look at human trafficking?
Brian Stewart: The situation we found inside a war-torn Sudan in the '80s was then the worst case of modern slavery on Earth. We came across long streams of young children whose parents had been murdered or kidnapped by militias fleeing through dangerous jungles from slavers on horseback—it struck us as a scene right out of the 18th century. Capture for these children meant being carried off to communities where they would be sold as farm labourers or sex slaves ... My involvement in this story led me to contact the International Anti-Slavery Society in London—the world's oldest volunteer organization—which brought home to me that beyond isolated cases of what we might call outright slavery, there's the scourge of human trafficking to deal with ... Because so much of this problem remains in shadows, it's hard to pin down exact figures. But human trafficking has almost certainly gotten worse in recent decades due to the increase in vulnerable populations in poor areas, the global reliance on very cheap labour, the internationalization of the sex trade and, of course, because of the rapid expansion of global travel.
VW: What do you know about Canada as a source, transit and destination for human trafficking?
BS: Human trafficking in Canada is thought to afflict tens of thousands of victims, and our national record of combatting this danger has not been very effective to date. For years the US State Department has criticized Canada because of our governmental failure to energetically protect victims and coordinate action against the traffickers ... Fortunately Ottawa and some provinces are finally taking the problem far more seriously and the Harper government has recently put $25 million into a campaign that will bring trafficking to the public's attention, train police and prosecutors, and integrate law enforcement teams.
VW: How do you keep from being discouraged about such a huge, global problem?
BS: What keeps me from being discouraged is humanity's recent record of growing success against human rights abuses everywhere. It is too easy to concentrate on the dire nature of problems without taking account of how very far we've come in just a few generations. V
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