Victims of Trafficking in Persons: Perspectives from the Canadian Community Sector

1. Introduction

This report presents the results of a qualitative research project that was completed between January and July 2005. At the request of the Research and Statistics Division of the Department of Justice, three Montreal-based researchers conducted a study to document the perspectives of the Canadian community sector’s experiences with trafficking in persons in terms of the victims they met with, the services they were able to provide to these victims and the gaps in services that they discovered.

This report is divided into five main sections. In the first, some basic background information on trafficking in persons in Canada precedes a description of the project and the methodology. The next section presents the findings related to the characteristics of trafficking in persons as encountered by respondents working in community-based organisations. This is followed by findings related to services currently available for trafficking victims and gaps identified by study participants. The report continues with a discussion of the implications of these findings for community-based service provision in Canada and ends with a short conclusion.

Trafficking in persons is defined by the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (hereafter the UN Protocol on Trafficking) as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. (UN, 2000)

For the purposes of this project, a shorter and simplified working definition was developed in order to: first, situate the starting point of the research; second, provide a uniform framework to elicit responses; third, highlight the multiple facets of the phenomenon in relation to respondents’ perception of trafficking; and, fourth, make the conceptualization of trafficking as defined in the UN Protocol on Trafficking more manageable for respondents. According to this simplified definition, trafficking in persons “involves the recruitment, transportation or harbouring of persons for the purpose of exploitation.” It also involves the control of victims, including force and threats of violence, and it may occur across or within borders.

1.1 Current Knowledge about Trafficking in Persons in Canada

Trafficking in persons constitutes a serious human rights violation. Trafficked persons, predominantly women and children, are forced into degrading situations and conditions of suffering. Victims are controlled by fear of exposure and deportation, violence, and the threat of violence to themselves and their families. The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP) estimates that trafficking by criminal organizations amount to $5-7 billion annually (Arlacci, 2000). A recent report by the US Department of Justice increases this estimate to $10 billion. Since trafficking is a lucrative business that can complement activities in the drug and sex industries, it has attracted international organized crime rings. Trafficking in persons also occurs on a smaller scale where individuals, small "businessmen," acquaintances of victims and even family members can be involved.

The number of people trafficked in the world each year, or even in Canada alone, is extremely difficult to determine given the clandestine nature of the activity and the relative lack of research in this area. Based on a survey of available sources, the RCMP estimates that between 700,000 and four million people are trafficked every year worldwide; these figures roughly coincide with the UN estimate of two million persons. The RCMP has also made a conservative estimate that approximately 600 women and children are trafficked into Canada each year for sexual exploitation alone, and at least 800 for all domestic markets (involvement in drug trade, domestic work, labour for garment or other industries, etc.). Moreover, the RCMP estimates that between 1,500 and 2,200 people are trafficked from Canada into the US each year, suggesting that Canada is a source, transit and destination country (RCMP, 2005, unpublished).

Globally, trafficking involves the flow of people from poor, less developed countries to Western industrialized nations. In May 2005, the International Labour Organization estimated that at any given time there are a minimum of 2.45 million people in forced labour as a result of trafficking in persons of which 270 000 are trafficked into industrialized countries. Victims of trafficking who arrive in Canada come from a wide variety of source countries, but Asian countries and those of the former Soviet Union have been identified as primary sources (RCMP, 2005, unpublished). There is growing awareness of a phenomenon involving both immigrant and Canadian individuals – particularly Aboriginals – being trafficked within the country or from Canada to the US. Again, this phenomenon is linked to poverty and to other social risk factors such as addiction or lack of social support.

2. The Study

This research project focuses on both international and domestic trafficking; it examines Canada as a source, destination and/or transit country. It also examines the community groups that provide assistance to trafficking victims. For the purposes of this research, the emphasis is on trafficking in persons both as a human rights and a gender issue. While recognizing that the majority of known trafficking victims are women and children and that they are often being trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, this study also makes an effort to include victims of trafficking for other purposes such as forced labour.

2.1 The Goal of the Project

The objectives of this research project are to gain a deeper understanding of the characteristics and needs of victims of trafficking, as well as to document the community-based services that currently exist for victims and to identify any gaps in these services.

2.2 Research Questions

  • What are the characteristics of victims of trafficking, including their age, ethnic background, sex and, within Canada, their Aboriginal status?
  • How are victims of trafficking recruited? What makes them vulnerable to such exploitation?
  • What is the movement of trafficked persons, such as their countries of origin, transit countries and countries of destination, and once in Canada, points of entry and movements within Canada?
  • What are the living and working conditions of trafficked persons?
  • What are the needs of victims of trafficking?
  • How are the needs of the victims currently being met? What are the gaps?
  • What are the barriers to providing services to victims of trafficking and how might they be overcome?

2.3 Ethics Procedure

A letter was sent out to organizations describing the research project, the methodology and the ethical guidelines. It was accompanied by a consent form and potential respondents were given the name of researchers and their telephone number should they have any questions about the project. Consent to participate in the study was given by telephone and was recorded. The interview guide used, the consent form, and the reasons for some groups’ refusal to participate are included in an appendix of the report. Confidentiality and anonymity have been preserved within this report and tapes and interview transcripts will be destroyed after three years as established in the consent agreement.

2.4 Methodology

2.4.1 Sampling Procedure

The research was undertaken in four sites: Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg. These locations were selected because they have a high proportion of migrant and sex trade workers. Winnipeg also has the highest Aboriginal urban population in the country; anecdotal evidence gathered from “experiential workers” suggests that Aboriginal people may be particularly vulnerable to trafficking within Canada, and statistical evidence shows a higher incidence of unemployment, marginalization and poverty than within the Canadian population in general. According to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (2000), in 1996 the Aboriginal unemployment rate was 28.7% and the Canadian rate was 10.1%. A significant difference is also found regarding poverty level. Statistics indicated that 40.9% of registered Indians have a revenue equal to or less than the poverty level, while Canadians show a rate of 16.5% (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2000). Furthermore, the above four cities have been identified by the RCMP intelligence assessment as “hot spots” of trafficking in persons.

Frontline organisations with direct experience with trafficking victims were sought for participation. Given the hidden nature of trafficking in persons, the fact that it is a newly-recognised phenomenon in Canada and that there are very few organisations with specific mandates to deal with trafficking, snowball sampling was necessary to recruit respondents. Researchers began by conducting an internet search of Canadian community groups making reference to trafficking or having taken part in conferences or government consultations on the issue. Once contact was established with groups offering services to trafficking victims, we asked them to refer us to other groups working with this population.

Efforts were made to counter the selection bias by initiating several discrete chains of referral. Therefore, a broad range of service providers was considered: victim services, NGOs providing settlement, immigrant and refugee services, community and health services, religious organizations, women’s organisations and Aboriginal and ethnic organizations. Of the 125 agencies contacted, 40 agreed to participate in the study and 85 chose not to participate. The majority of these 85 groups declined because they had no experience in trafficking issues and the others did not respond due to the short timeframe. For a complete list of reasons for non-participation, see Appendix 3.

In total, 40 interviews were conducted: 10 each in Toronto and Winnipeg, 11 in Vancouver and 9 in Montreal. The following table indicates the specific mandates of the organizations recruited.

Table 1. Organization mandate
Mandate Vancouver Winnipeg Toronto Montreal Total
Domestic workers 1 - 1 2 4
Sex trade workers - - 1 1 2
Sexual assault 2 - - 1 3
Conjugal violence 2 - - - 2
Trafficking (Women and Children) - 2 1 - 3
Trafficking (Education and Policy) - - 1 1 2
Settlement for Immigrants and Refugees 1 2 2 1 6
Advocacy, Rights’ Education, Counselling - 2 2 1 5
First Nations 1 2 1 - 4
Women’s Groups 2 - - 1 3
Shelter for Women (day or night) 2 2 1 - 5
Homeless Youth - - - 1 1
Total 11 10 10 9 40

Of all the agencies represented by the sample, five have specific mandates to work with victims of trafficking: three are directly involved in service provision to victims while two are more concerned with educational and policy issues. Some workers reported that they were probably not always aware of situations involving trafficking victims in their dealings with their clientele. This information is not easily disclosed by the victims and workers are sometimes afraid of losing contact with their clients if they ask too many questions. However, all the agencies who participated come into contact with victims of trafficking, some knowingly because of their mandates.

2.4.2 Interview Process

Data were collected using semi-structured questions developed through a consultation process among members of the research team and Dr Kuan Li, the representative from the Research and Statistics Division of the Department of Justice Canada. The same guide was used in the telephone interviews with all 40 respondents (refer to Appendix 1). Given the highly differing mandates and activities of the frontline organisations involved, it was necessary to be flexible in using the guide. Not all the questions were relevant to the work carried out by an organisation. A significant example of this is when groups worked only with international or only with domestic victims of trafficking.

Telephone interviews were conducted with frontline workers having had first hand experience working with victims of trafficking. The emphasis of the interviews was on gathering the experiences of trafficked persons, not participants’ opinions, and documenting the availability of community-based services and any gaps that might exist in the delivery of services, focussing on the most compelling needs and solutions to meet them.

2.4.3 Data Analysis

The audio-taped information from each interview was transcribed. Emerging themes were generated through open coding of the transcripts of the telephone interviews (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Recurrent themes were then isolated and the nature of each interviewee’s responses within that theme was identified. Responses were grouped first by city and then by relevance to the research questions noted above.

Similarities and differences in definitions of trafficking, characteristics of victims, vulnerability, recruitment, transit and forms of exploitation, victim needs and services offered, unmet needs and obstacles to the provision of services were extracted from individual transcripts in each city. This process enabled us to observe the development of specific patterns across all sites.

The trustworthiness of the data was evaluated according to credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability of the analysis procedure ( Lincoln, 1995). Credibility was established through consistent responses in each interview, triangulation (use of existing literature, coding confirmed by a second and third researcher), and peer debriefing (among the three co-investigators). The criteria for transferability are met insofar as the sample size is consistent with what is considered good for qualitative research, and the context within which the research took place has been explained. Dependability was established through the tapes, transcripts and audit trail demonstrating how the analysis was done. Confirmability can be judged by the reader in the findings section to ascertain the extent to which the quotations support the themes.

Date modified: