Migrants from Central America are seen in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, June 9 after being rescued by the police from human smugglers. A key author of an Alberta task force report looking into the issue is a director at Catholic Social Services. CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters

Trafficking report focused on victim voice

  • October 1, 2021

When appraising the landscape through a global lens, a case can be made that 2021 has been a banner year in the fight against the evil, entrenched practice of human trafficking.

Among the landmark sting task force victories are Operation Reclaim and Rebuild (Jan. 26 to Feb. 1) and Operation Liberterra (July 5-9). The former was California’s annual statewide anti-trafficking initiative. This year more than 100 federal, state and local agencies collaborated to rescue 39 victims and execute 450 arrests.

The International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) led the latter operation. Forty-seven countries teamed up to rescue 430 victims, identify 4,000 irregular migrants and secure 286 criminal seizures. The success of this bust also provided the intelligence to launch 60 new intercontinental investigations.

Canada did not factor into either of the above operations, but is perhaps poised to accomplish more in fighting against this felonious enterprise in the future.

One of the foremost Canadian experts is Patricia Vargas, a director of children, family and community service at Catholic Social Services (CSS) in Edmonton since 2018.

In May 2020, she was appointed to a Government of Alberta Human Trafficking Task Force chaired by Canadian country music star Paul Brandt, who is acclaimed for his #NotInMyCity movement to raise awareness and compel action against sexual exploitation and trafficking of children and youth.

Vargas was a natural fit for this assignment as she united 11 different nations to develop protocols and frameworks for transferring victims of human trafficking between international shelters as a board member for the Global Network of Women’s Shelters. She has also participated in a multitude of task forces, think tanks and roundtables about human trafficking through the years.

“I think I got on the radar for the task force because I publicly spoke about the issue, and I would represent the people who work with trafficking victims,” said Vargas. “Catholic Social Services was so supportive in letting me be on the committee so I could represent the people we serve the best I could.”

Vargas’ work with victims of trafficking extends way past her recent posting with CSS. She served as executive director of the Strathcona Shelter Society emergency haven for women and children from 2001 to 2018. Before that, she developed web content on behalf of the University of Alberta’s legal studies program on abuse of women and immigrant women.

While not permitted to disclose everything about the task force’s activities, findings and recommendations, Vargas did reveal that it listened to presentations from 92 individuals with lived human trafficking experiences.

“You listen to each of their stories and you honour them by making sure their voices are always with you when you are trying to formulate recommendations,” she said.

She and her colleagues also studied current legislation, pored through reams of studies and literature, examined other provinces and hotbed jurisdictions and networked with other experts for the report to the provincial government, filed just under a month ago.

Alberta Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kaycee Madu is in the midst of reviewing the task force’s submission. The next step is a meeting between Madu and the anti-trafficking team. There is no firm target date for that sit-down yet.

Vargas says it is tough to listen to the stories of trafficking because of how these victims were let down by the social support systems that should prevent these atrocities. She feels called to serve in this field as she seeks to find better ways forward.

“It is never easy to listen to the stories knowing that there aren’t enough services or there are gaps in services. We ask ourselves, ‘how can we do better?’ As a task force, we came up with recommendations that keep the victims at the centre to honour what they think are the gaps and limits.”

Building public awareness about human trafficking is one of the key recommendations submitted by the think tank. In that spirit, The Catholic Register asked Vargas about what the general public often misinterprets about human trafficking.

“Very little of the (cases) we see are abductions. Instead there is a relationship that is built often with vulnerable people. It is often high-risk youth, women with children who begin a relationship that becomes abusive and the woman becomes prostituted,” she said.

“A way to combat that is to build positive relationships with vulnerable people who may be victims of human trafficking so that they can trust us to have the strength to leave those places.”

A second misconception, said Vargas, is that human trafficking is largely accomplished by smuggling people. The mechanisms are far more legitimate-looking and elaborate.

“For example, a lot of our women are not smuggled through crossings. They are actually brought here on different pretenses, including job opportunities. A woman could be hired as a nanny, but part of the deal is that she will be victimized, prostituted and exploited.”

Vargas also says we must not assume that victims will automatically be trafficked internationally.

“There are Indigenous women who are trafficked from their reserve. Again, people go there to build relationships. Imagine someone who could offer something missing from your life? They become that person who fills your cup, and then they manipulate you. It is a long process of targeting the vulnerabilities of someone.”

In the period before the report is publicized, Vargas suggests the public educate themselves on the topic by studying the educational pieces and resources offered by the organizations in their province. Much of this can be found at canadianhumantraffickinghotline.ca/referral-directory/.

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