In Human Rights, International, Policy, Safety and Peace (SDG # 16)

Diverse historical, political, ethical, legal, and socio-economic perspectives polarize the debate around the concept of trafficking, leading to controversial definitions of human trafficking. Thus, measures to tackle this issue lack consensus and often neglect the human right aspects of the problem. By focusing on operations and processes of human trafficking rather than its root causes, legislative instruments have yet to prove their efficiency in controlling and dismantling the global human traffic network. As a result, the organization of a comprehensive support system to identify, assess and help the physically and psychologically wounded trafficked persons remains precarious.


The most used definition of human trafficking stems from the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children and which sates that: “Trafficking in persons” shall mean “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”.

This Protocol, also known as the Palermo Protocol to the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime was adopted in Pamerlo on December 2000. It was ratified by 170 parties including Canada and requires its signatories to take full responsibility in helping all victims of trafficking.

In this text, we will refer to “Trafficking in persons” as human trafficking.

There is a telling shortage of evidence to help grasp the complexity of human trafficking. Systematic data collection is scarce, so are statistics that capture this phenomenon. Those available are often criticized for their lack of validity and reliability. The main challenges lie in building representative sampling from a “hidden population” where many cases are often unidentified and where victims/survivors are often reticent to talk about their experiences. Current literature seems to focus rather on the supply aspects of trafficking than on demand factors, (Gozdziak & Collett, 2005, Sigmon, 2008, Rao & Presenti 2012, Weitzer, 2014).

Notwithstanding these limitations, following is the summary of a discussion on human trafficking that was organized by UWCM interest group on Women’s issues.

Risk factors

A series of push – pull factors were identified as source of risks that are manipulated by  organized crime networks involved in human trafficking. Push factors were associated mainly with poverty, war, lack of education, limited prospects for the future, gender, class, ethno-racial inequalities, inadequate social support and traumatic experience.

Among the pull factors were media-constructed images of glamorous industrialized countries, the possibility of a better life, the quest for peace and safety.

In Canada, vulnerable populations include: Aboriginal women and girls, migrant workers, new immigrants and youth. Many factors increase the vulnerability of aboriginal women to trafficking mainly: intergenerational trauma from the residential-school system, foster care, systemic racism, history of multiple abuses, glaring poverty resulting in poor housing, lack of education, high rates of violence, and insufficient culture sensitive support services. 51% of women trafficked in Canada are Aboriginals. A 2014 United Nations committee suggested that the overrepresentation of Canadian indigenous women in the human traffic sector was a result of their economic and social marginalization, a situation that placed them at a “disproportionately high risk for disappearance and murder.”

Incidence and scope

UN data of 2011 suggests that about 12.3 million people worldwide were victims of trafficking, out of these, at least 56% were women. Human trafficking is considered as the 3rd most lucrative global business, behind weapons and drug trade. It generates approximately $32 billion (US) annually for its perpetrators (Timoshkina and MacDonald, 2011; Canada Action Plan, 2014, UN 2012).

Human trafficking is a highly-gendered business that has reached a disturbing rise over the past decade. Originating countries tend to be poor: trafficking victims usually come from Asia, the CIS, Africa; Eastern Europe and Latin America. Destination countries were identified as industrialized countries, characterized by intensive incubation of sex industries and tolerance for prostitution. The most prominent destination countries reported by order of increasing importance were: Italy, the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Greece, Turkey, and Thailand.

Canada was considered as a source, transit and destination country for trafficking in persons. The main categories of trafficking were: sex trade; domestic and other labour (agricultural, factory work); mail-order bride’s industry. There are some well-travelled corridors. One runs between Thunder Bay and Winnipeg. A second corridor runs west from Winnipeg.

In 2011, the number of trafficked persons in Canada was estimated to be between 8,000 and 16,000; this number doubled by 2014. Annual profits stood at a range of $120-$400 million back in 1998 and continues to grow, (Stats Canada, Trafficking of Persons in Canada, 2014).

Among the 396 cases of police-reported human trafficking in Canada between 2009 and 2014, the majority were female (93%), about half (47%) of them were between 18 and 24 years old; almost 25% were under 18. Most victims (91%) knew the trafficker either as a business relationship (23 %), a casual acquaintance (22%), or a non-spousal intimate partner (18%), (Stats Canada, 2014).


The process begins with recruiters, moves through transporters (internal, national and transnational) before reaching the distribution channels of exploiters (sexual exploitation, forced labour, practices similar to slavery, removal of organs). At the «periphery» there are trafficking syndicates that hire specialized advisors to take advantage of legal loopholes.

Human trafficking is organized through a 3 levels hierarchy (i) Master trafficker (ii) Primary trafficker (iii) Secondary traffickers.

Business models

Human trafficking is often viewed as a business process that complies with market rules of offer and demands. Western rich countries are seen as the source of demands while poor and developed countries serve as supply pools. There are five models of operation which vary from their level of integration, the type of profits and where / how the profits are laundered. The Natural Resource model prevails in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Trade and Development model fully integrated from recruitment to sale and exploitation is common in East Asia. The Supermarket model, based on large-scale supply and existing demand is partially integrated; it is common in Central and North America. The Violent Entrepreneur model is fully integrated and is found in the Balkans. Finally, the Traditional Slavery with Modern Technology is a partially integrated model prevailing in West Africa.

Modus Operandi

Legally established organizations (marriage, employment) as well as scouting agents are generally used in the recruitment of young women and children, with glittering promises of marriage or access to a better life in a richer country/city. Recruitment is much easier where the recruiter, disguised as a sponsor or lover, speaks the same language and shares similar cultural backgrounds with the victims.

Traffickers often bribe border officials to facilitate transport using either legal visas or falsified travel and/or identity documents. Once arrived at destination, victims are stripped of all identity documents. Then begin the descent into hell where traffickers use debt-bondage to enslave their victims who, in order to reimburse their «debt», are pushed into the downward spiral of exploitation under the traffickers’ stranglehold.


Traffickers have infiltrated all social classes: some have no education while others hold a post-graduate degree; they could be married, single blue or white collars, with or without children; some had a criminal history while others did not; many were former victims of trafficking. Traffickers usually target the most vulnerable individuals, often illiterate, with no experience of urban life or in dealing with money. In many cases, family members collaborate in trafficking activities.

Various studies described traffickers as men and women, of age varying from 15 to 58 years, with or without previous experience in trafficking. Female traffickers who are often perceived by victims as being credible and authoritative, play various roles from recruiter, intermediary, to manager or support.

In Canada, most traffickers are male, Canadian citizens, from various ethnicities. Between 2009 and 2014, among the 459 persons accused of human trafficking, 83% were males, between 18 and 24 years old (41%) or 25 to 34 years old (36%). There was an equal proportion of traffickers working alone or with others. In about 50 % of cases, traffickers were associated with street gangs (Statistics Canada, 2014).


Victims of trafficking are often perceived as illegal immigrants, prostitutes or vagabonds. Several are physically branded (indicating ownership by the trafficker). They appear fearful, vigilant and withdrawn. They may show signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, confinement and torture. They are escorted or watched by a third party who monitors any conversation or intervenes as a «translator». They usually live in very high security and poor hygienic conditions; they change address (brothel) frequently and look unaware of their surroundings. They have very few possession and restricted or no contact with friends or relatives. They have no identification, financial record or bank account. Current literature report the victims evolving in ” an unfamiliar milieu where she is culturally, linguistically or physically isolated and denied legal identity or access to justice. Such dislocation increases trafficked women’s marginalization and therefore increases the risk of abuse, violence, exploitation, domination or discrimination by both traffickers, police officials, the courts, immigration”, (Bernat and Zhilina 2010; Timoshkina and MacDonald, 2011; RCMP, 2014).

In Canada, victims often do not speak French or English; they can be located in nightclubs/bars, modeling studios, hospitals, escort services, massage parlours, shelters, private residences. They also can be identified through Internet advertising.


Trafficking is a multitraumatic weapon that leave victims with unscarred physical and psychological wounds while they have inadequate or no access to health care.

Physical health effects are known to be associated with poor hygiene and unsafe sexual practices, for example: sexually transmitted diseases (HIV and non-HIV), genital injury and trauma, pelvic inflammatory disease, chronic hepatitis and all types of opportunistic infections. Other health problems are those associated with trauma sustained from physical violence such as: bruise, burn, fracture, torture, rape, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) which is a result of being beaten, strangled, or having one’s head slammed into hard surfaces. TBI victims suffer from headaches, dizziness, pain/numbness in hands and feet, vision, memory and hearing problems.

In Canada, 3 in 10 trafficked victims have experienced physical injury (81%), (Statistics Canada, 2014).

Mental health effects carry a lifelong burden on victims. The most significant mental health problem reported was the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD may include: nightmares, flashbacks, emotional distress, irritability, destructive behavior, mood disorder, hypervigilance, heightened startle reaction, difficulty concentrating, overly negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world, exaggerated blame of self or others for causing the trauma, depersonalization, (feeling as if “this is not happening to me”), de-realization (“things are not real”). PTSD symptoms share similarities with those of the Stockholm syndrome, a mental health disorder that results from a captive or hostage situation. Finally, the “chilling effect” is a mental health condition characterized by attempts to avoid negative consequences that are imposed by a partner or figure of authority. Victims with «chilling effect» avoid sharing what they perceive as «negative information» with people whom they perceive as powerful.


Early responses were regulatory- based. The trend was to rely on international conventions to develop policies and regulations to counter activities related to human trafficking. Henceforth, signatories of the 1949 UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others were required to (1) Prohibit trafficking (2) Adopt administrative and enforcement measures (3) Implement social measures aimed at protecting trafficked persons. This Convention was criticized because of inadequate enforcement mechanisms, lack of resources and deficiencies in measures to protect the victims. Similar criticisms were formulated in the context of the 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which required state parties to “take appropriate measures to suppress traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.” Success of the 2000 Palermo Protocol remains questionable as many countries are trying to face the national and international challenges of human trafficking (Doezema. J.2002).

Modern responses are a mixture of regulations, technology along with social measures. The most notable are: special shelters, witness protection, financial assistance, medical treatment, capacity building in terms of social integration and financial freedom. Recent initiatives with positive outcomes involve the use of technology either to prevent human trafficking by intercepting demand at source, to monitor trafficking situations, to conduct cyber-patrolling, or to connect trafficked survivors with legal assistance in real time. Other responses include development of tool kits, specialized training and integration in academic program such as the Institute of Modern Day Slavery.

Global awareness activities began in 2014, when the UN adopted July 30 as the World Day against Trafficking in Persons. Later, on February 8, 2015, the Vatican introduced the “International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking”. On December 2016, president Obama has proclaimed January 2017 as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Several NGOs worldwide are involved in fighting human trafficking in many fronts.

Regulatory responses in Canada

In Canada, human trafficking is regulated by the Criminal Code of Canada, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

In 2005, three offences were added to the Criminal Code of Canada: Section 279.01 (trafficking in persons), 279.02 (receiving a material benefit from trafficking in persons), 279.03 (withholding or destroying documents to facilitate trafficking in persons).

In 2010, the Criminal Code was amended to include section 279.011 (trafficking in persons under 18 years of age). Another amendment was made in 2012 to allow for Canadian prosecution of Canadians and permanent residents of Canada who commit human trafficking offences internationally.

In 2012, the Manitoba’s Child Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking Act came into force. This Act protects victims of human trafficking by forbidding the perpetrator to have any contact with the victim. It also has provision allowing the victim to resort to the Tort Law in order to sue their traffickers.

In 2015, Section 118.1 of Immigration and Refugee Protection Act stipulates that « No person shall knowingly organize the coming into Canada of one or more persons by means of abduction, fraud, deception or use or threat of force or coercion».

Policy and social responses in Canada

In 2012, the Canada National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking (NAPCH) was adopted. Its focus was the prevention of human trafficking, the protection of victims and the prosecution of offenders.

In 2013, the British Columbia’s Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons (OCTIP) began its fight against trafficking. It uses a unique collaborative approach that involves all levels of governments, faith-based organizations, academia and Aboriginal communities. The OCTIP takes pride in its highly responsive interventions that address the complexity of trafficked victims’ needs.

In 2015, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre (HTNCC) was inaugurated. The objectives were to provide “a focal point for law enforcement in their efforts to combat and disrupt individuals and criminal organizations involved in Human Trafficking Activities”.

In summary, human trafficking is a business that started centuries ago and whose insidious venom of greed and power have infiltrated the course of time. It underwent significant transformations in its stakeholders’ geo political interests and social profiles. Today, it is positioned as a multi billion – dollar industry that operates through various business models, leaving its enslaved victims physically and mentally wounded. The variations in scope and efficiency of legal instruments available to fight human trafficking are translated as major gaps in terms of: difficulty to convict traffickers, lack of resources to implement policies, weak capacity to prevent human trafficking and protecting its victims. Social and policy responses seem so far ill equipped to address both the challenges of this global problem and the complex needs of the victims.


Poverty and its consequences seem to be the cornerstone of human trafficking. Global efforts to eradicate poverty are coherent with the fight against human trafficking. However, lucrative trafficking activities are soaring while conditions that nurture poverty remain implacably unchanged (war, social inequity, plundering of natural resources).

  • Who benefits from trafficking?
  • Why are women and girls the major targets of trafficking?
  • What are the relationships between poverty, human trafficking and gender?
  • How can people liberated from trafficking learn to survive? What does justice mean to them?
  • How to explain the discrepancies between the reported large number of trafficked persons versus the small number of convicted traffickers?
  • How efficient is Canadian legal system in preventing human trafficking, punishing traffickers and protecting the victims?
  • Are there screening instruments that can help early identification of trafficked victims? If yes, how gender-sensitive and culturally-sensitive are these instruments? How reliable are they?
  • Is there specialized training for health care professionals and community organizers in recognizing and addressing victims’ needs? If yes, what is the efficiency of these training?
  • What community infrastructures are available to coordinate and support victims of human trafficking in Canada? Are they sufficient? Do they meet the needs of the victims?
  • What are the challenges of a victim in trying to obtain health care services? Legal protection?
  • How can survival of sex trafficking rebuild their lives?
  • How can we do better to help the victims of trafficking?


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DISCLAIMER: This post is provided for informational purposes only and as ground for informal discussions. It is written with limited content that may be confirmed with or refuted by other sources at anytime.

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