Tough on trafficking

  • May 24, 2011

The 18-year-old woman arrived from Africa to begin a new life working in a Vancouver hair salon. At least, that was the promise.

But when she landed, according to police, her employer confiscated her passport and used threats and intimidation to force the young woman to work seven days a week, 18 hours a day as an unpaid household servant. A virtual slave. She lived that way for a year, alone and terrified, before escaping to a women’s shelter.

Her ordeal has resulted in a Vancouver woman facing charges of human trafficking, a crime that is rampant around the world. The United Nations estimates that more than 2.4 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. It is a $32-billion global industry, behind only drug smuggling and gun-running as the most lucrative international criminal activities. It thrives because the world abounds with poor, vulnerable people who are easily exploited, but also because for every victim lured or snatched from their home there is someone willing to acquire human cargo.

It is a particularly heinous crime because it targets women and children. The UN reports that women comprise 66 per cent of victims and children 19 per cent, and they are primarily delivered to the sex industry (79 per cent) or into forced labour (18 per cent). The victims typically have poverty in common but come from many different nations, particularly in central Europe, Africa and East Asia.

Canada is a buyer country in this underground human market. The RCMP estimates as many as 800 people a year are sold into the sex trades or into coerced labour in Canada. The main buyer in the sex industry is organized crime, but often it is homeowners seeking inexpensive or unpaid domestic help who fuel the forced labour market.

Although the problem is complex, the new majority government of Stephen Harper should make addressing it a priority of Parliament. It needs to target both the smugglers who traffic human beings and the people who take delivery and exploit these human lives.

When Harper’s minority government was defeated in March, the Conservatives’ proposed anti-human-smuggling legislation, Bill C-49, died with it. It promised to get tough on smugglers but, overall, was a flawed bill because it also proposed stiff penalties for refugees who used smugglers to flee persecution. That bill needs to be revived — but redrafted in a way to offer refugees the safeguards they deserve — and then quickly passed to close Canada’s borders to smugglers.

But ending this repugnant practice also demands tough penalties to deal with the end buyers of human cargo. The market for this modern-day form of slavery needs to be eliminated through powerful legal deterrents, including jail time, for those who exploit trafficked humans.

Canadians owe as much to every person who lands on our shores.

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