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  • Lauren Salim

Human Trafficking in the Canada and the US: An Overview

October 26, 2022


Last November, the United Nation’s Inter-Agency Coordination Group Against Trafficking in person released a statement urging countries to improve access to justice and support for victims of human trafficking in a manner that prevents revictimization and punishment.

“Victims of human trafficking not only suffer the worst forms of physical and psychological abuse but are also often prosecuted and even convicted for crimes they were compelled to perpetrate by their exploiters,” says Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Many factors can make someone vulnerable to human trafficking including a conflict in their home region, climate crises, forced displacement, and being a member of one or more of the following groups: children in the foster care system, a racial and ethnic minority, an Indigenous community, or the LGBTQI+ community, due to social, legal and cultural marginalization.

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit”. Anyone of any age and gender can be trafficked and victims can be forced to labour without pay or adequate salary, commit crimes, serve as child soldiers, or even be used for organ harvesting.

It is important to note that human trafficking and human smuggling are different crimes, and victims of human trafficking can be “forced or manipulated into an exploitative situation without ever leaving their home country.”

The UN estimates that human trafficking generates $32 billion USD annually for its perpetrators and that there are approximately 40 million victims worldwide.

The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (UN TIP Protocol) is the international legal instrument and was adopted in November 2000. States party to this treaty must criminalize these acts and develop laws and policies that are in line with the provisions within the protocol. They are also obligated to ensure victims’ rights are fully respected and to provide them with protection and assistance. Both Canada and the United States have signed on to the UN TIP Protocol.

In Canada

In 2019, the federal government announced a five-year National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking which focused on protecting and empowering victims while holding those who perpetrate the crime accountable.

However, Statistics Canada reports that successful prosecution of human trafficking victims often depends on victim testimony and corroborating evidence, which may re-traumatize victims who are sometimes seen as less credible “due to factors related to vulnerability (e.g., substance use, homelessness, mental health issues).”

Police services in Canada reported 2,977 incidents of human trafficking between 2010 and 2020. It is important to note that many instances are not reported to the police for a variety of reasons. Within the same period, 834 criminal court cases involving at least one charge of human trafficking were completed. Statistics Canada found that human trafficking cases took nearly twice as long to complete (median of 373 days) than violent adult criminal cases (median of 176 days).

According to Statistics Canada, the rate of human trafficking in Ontario, 1.6 incidents in 100,000 people, was more than one and a half times the national rate in 2016. And between 2009 and 2016, two-thirds of reported incidents were in Ontario. - Atjanan Charoensiri/Shutterstock

In 2014, the National Task Force on Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada found that “51% of women and 50% of girls trafficked in Canada are Indigenous, despite comprising just 5% of the overall population.”

There are supports available if you suspect you or someone you know is the victim of trafficking or if you see something suspicious. The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline is operated by the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking can be reached at 1-833-900-1010 and offers support in more than 200 languages including 27 Indigenous languages.

Talk for Healing is a helpline that provides confidential and culturally appropriate support for Indigenous women and children experiencing violence, available in 14 languages across Ontario. Talk for Healing can be reached at 1-888-200- 9997.

In the United States

Like Canada, the United States divides human trafficking into two types – sex trafficking and forced labour. The US State Department published its most recent annual “Trafficking in Persons Report” in July of 2022 which provides detailed country reports and scorecards. In 2019, the report found that the top three nations of origin for victims were the US, Mexico, and the Philippines.

It is hard to know for sure the number of victims of human trafficking because it is often hidden, stigmatized and under-reported to police. However, the US Institute Against Human Trafficking estimates the number of children in the US who are trafficked exceeds 100,000. Human trafficking is also largely a supply and demand issue, and the United States is one of the largest consumers of commercial sex worldwide.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline received 51,667 substantive tips on human trafficking cases in the US and US territories in 2020. If you see something concerning and suspect trafficking the hotline is confidential, toll-free and available in more than 200 languages. Call 1-888-373-7888 or text “BeFree” (233733).

Recommendations for Action

The Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons calls upon states to:

  1. Intensify efforts to discourage demand that fosters all forms of exploitation leading to trafficking in persons.

  2. Adopt or strengthen regulations governing sustainable procurement practices, use of technology, and protection of workers’ rights

  3. Ensure that procurement practices comply with the highest international human rights and labour law standards to prevent trafficking in persons.

As individuals, we can look out for warning signs that someone may be a victim of human trafficking:

  • Not having a passport or other ID

  • Being controlled or watched by others or being escorted at all times

  • Not having their own money or cell phone

  • Being frequently moved or “just visiting”

  • Providing scripted or rehearsed answers to casual questions

  • Displaying excessive concern about displeasing a partner or employer

  • Fearful of law enforcement or immigration services

  • Dressing in age-inappropriate clothing or in weather or context-inappropriate clothing

If you have reason to suspect trafficking, do not confront the victim or trafficker directly. In the case of immediate danger, call 911 or the emergency services line in your region. If there are no signs of immediate danger but you’ve seen or heard suspicious signs of trafficking, record details like the summary of the situation, date/time/location, a description of those involved, vehicles and license plates involved and report it to the hotline in your area.

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