The 30th of July is the United Nations’ World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. This year’s theme, “Victims’ Voices Lead the Way” focuses on the significance of listening to and learning from the survivors of human trafficking.
First adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000 and passed in 2003, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) initiated the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime to address human trafficking.
The convention includes three protocols, the first being the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons.
The other two protocols are the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, and the Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition.
Besides facilitating global cooperation in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking cases, the first protocol aims to “protect and assist the victims of trafficking in persons with full respect for their human rights”.
A 2004 UNODC document highlights the first protocol’s three purposes:
Prevent and combat human trafficking
Protect and assist the victims of trafficking
Promote international cooperation to reach points one and two
As of 2018, there are 147 signatories on the UNODC document.
According to the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, Canada was one of the first countries to ratify the protocol in May 2002.
Using the UNODC points, the Canadian government intends “to prevent trafficking from occurring, protect victims of human trafficking, bring its perpetrators to justice and build partnerships domestically and internationally”.
The four main pillars of the National Action Plan closely echo the UN protocol:
Prevent human trafficking
Partner with others domestically and internationally
While anyone can become a victim of human trafficking, the National Action Plan highlights that there are specific disadvantaged groups. It states that women and children are more vulnerable to exploitation. The protocol’s article on information exchange and training also notes that “training should also take into account the need to consider human rights and child and gender-sensitive issues”.
In 2019, Statistics Canada supported this further, finding that women and girls constituted 95% of human trafficking victims in Canada.
The National Action Plan says human trafficking typically occurs in urban centres. CBC reported in 2019 that Project Convalesce involving four police services in Ontario and one in Quebec busted a human trafficking operation taking place across several provinces. The kingpin was from Markham, Ontario.
The sting operation resulted in the arrest of 31 individuals, and over 300 charges were laid in relation to human trafficking, firearms possession, harassment and fraud. All of the victims were women aged 20–35.
The National Action Plan also states that socially or economically disadvantaged communities, like new immigrants, the homeless population and Indigenous peoples are more susceptible to trafficking.
According to Julie Neubauer, Program Manager of anti-trafficking services at Covenant House Toronto, “Those who are most vulnerable are those communities, those individuals, who are and have been historically without agency, without a firm sense of voice and access to resources that many other human beings have had”.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) reported in 2018 that “Canada’s colonial legacy has forced Indigenous women and girls into dangerous and precarious social and economic conditions, which in turn has made them more vulnerable to different kinds of violence”.
NWAC states that Indigenous women, who make up just four percent of the national population, account for nearly half of all human trafficking victims in Canada. The report cites five common systemic causes:
Poor living and housing conditions
High unemployment rates and low wages
The lack of accessible social and economic resources
Exposure from a young age
Intergenerational trauma and impacts of colonization
Neubauer says many victims were lured and groomed by traffickers before being trafficked. After forming a mental bond, it is “more difficult for [victims] to either identify that this is what’s happening to them or that they have a sense of guilt or responsibility to them in leaving”.
According to the National Action Plan, victims may hesitate to come forward due to fear, not understanding that they are victims, being unaware of their rights in Canada or being taught to distrust outsiders.
“They are told by the traffickers through this process that they can’t trust anybody”, Neubauer says. “Emotional shackles are the biggest constraints”.
Traffickers can create a sense of belonging, making it difficult for victims to leave.
“Even in these really ugly circumstances, there is a sense of safety, structure and predictability [for] them”, Neubauer says.
Some communities have historical struggles with the police and judicial systems.
“Oppression and colonialism and patriarchal systems have interfered with that ability to trust”, Neubauer says. “The traffickers reinforce that”.
“[Victims] know the court systems well enough to know that they aren’t friendly to victims”, Neubauer continues. “As a victim witness, it is a horrific endeavour to go and give a statement against the trafficker, then go and give testimonies”.
For these reasons, there need to be changes to legal and justice systems to empower victims. Neubauer also notes the importance of prevention and education within all social sectors to catch human trafficking before it starts.
“Awareness raising in all these areas needs to have a shared understanding about what it is and a response to addressing it”, Neubauer states.
In this regard, Ontario schools aim to implement anti-trafficking strategies by January 2022, according to The Toronto Star.
“There’s no guy in a white van”, Neubauer says. “That’s what makes it so difficult and frightening to people, there’s not one type of person who gets exploited and there’s not one type of person who is the exploiter”.
“The larger acknowledgement, which many people shy away from, is the notion of who’s buying [the exploited]”.
Human trafficking is not possible without a demand. It is necessary to investigate the societal causes that lead to human trafficking for the more effective prevention and protection of victims. To do so, Canada and UN Member States must stay committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) like SDG 5: Gender Equality, SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities and SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha