New research on human trafficking has found more than double the number of victims in Ontario over a three-year period than the number of cases the RCMP has reported for the entire country since 2005.
The report, released today by the Toronto-based Alliance Against Modern Slavery, reveals 551 cases of human trafficking in Ontario from January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2013. Included in the report are instances of forced sex work, forced labour, and forced marriage. This includes a 7-year-old who was apparently trafficked for sex.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Karlee Sapoznick, president of the alliance, a research group based at York University. “If we were to do this research on a regular basis, I think that we would see a much larger number.” She will present the findings today at the group’s annual conference in Toronto.
Using the United Nations’ definition of human trafficking in the Palermo Protocol, the group conducted interviews and collected data from organizations and workers who provide victim services. Ninety per cent of the cases they reported involved girls and women, mostly around the age of 17, 68 per cent of whom were trafficked into the sex trade. However, the report notes that sex trafficking of women may not be the most common form of trafficking, as it is challenging to access males and victims of forced labour and forced marriage. Canadian citizens were the victims in 63 per cent of Ontario cases.
The vast majority of the cases found by researchers have not been reported to police because victims may fear retribution by abusers, Sapoznik says. For example, victims of forced labour worry they may be deported due to precarious immigration status, while victims of forced marriage often want to protect their families from criminal charges.
According to the report, Ontario also has the highest number of foreign human trafficking victims recognized by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and the highest number of domestic human trafficking prosecutions. In its latest National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, the RCMP reports a total of 35 human trafficking convictions in Canada since 2005 involving 126 victims, with 80 cases before the courts involving approximately 122 victims. The May 2014 newsletter from the RCMP’s Human Trafficking Coordination Centre says that as of May, 93 human trafficking cases involving an estimated 168 victims are currently before the courts.
Sapoznik says detailed federal and provincial statistics on the issue are hard to come by and those available are even more difficult to understand due to the lack of clarity around the definition of human trafficking. “Police across Ontario do not keep records the same way. Some of them only keep records if there’s a [criminal] charge or they will only disclose [trafficking] if there’s a formal charge of human trafficking,” she says.
Perhaps the biggest area of disagreement between law enforcement and social services groups is around whether or not forced marriage counts as human trafficking. The RCMP does not agree, for example, but municipalities such as the City of Toronto do. (Toronto has initiatives to address human trafficking that include forced marriage.) “It’s been a sticky issue for the government because in these cases, most often the perpetrators are family members. And it gets into discussions about honour and domestic violence,” says Sapoznik. “But we need to stress that there are multiple forms of trafficking.”
The report calls on the government of Ontario to follow the lead of British Columbia and Manitoba, both of which have provincial offices dedicated to combating human trafficking. In 2011, the government of Ontario pledged $1.95 million over three years to combat the problem, while Manitoba received approximately $10 million per year in funding for anti-trafficking programs such as victims services and streamlined research projects.