A Frontline Perspective of Trafficking in Persons

Publication Date: 
Fall 2008
Resource Origin: 

Loly Rico is co-director of FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto.  She is also a member of the Canadian Council of Refugees.  Loly and the council have done extensive work on the issues of trafficking, violence against women and immigration.  Loly met with Elvina Rafi of Springtide Resources to answer some questions about Trafficking. 

Elvina: The issue of trafficking has been gaining attention in the media.  What do you think about how the issue is being portrayed?

Loly: One of the issues happening is that the media are putting human trafficking as a "fashion" and really victimizing the woman.  The portrayals are only focused on the sex trade. At the same time trafficking is portrayed as a "moral issue" I use quotations because they are portraying: 'the bad guy brings the poor woman and this woman is being used in sex trade and prostitution or sex trade work is something very bad'. The media are not really showing the real issues, about how it is exploitation of a human being, and they are not showing it with a gendered perspective where a woman is the target because she's female. We are living in a society where women have been portrayed by the media as objects and that is a big problem. What's happened to me in so many interviews is when I try to explain what the situation is, the media are just looking for a "big theme" or story; they want detailed descriptions of what happened. The real "big theme" is finding a way to push the government to do some policy changes and making trafficking into a moralistic or sensational story or soap opera is a problem and makes it difficult for us to have an impact or make changes.  That's the major negative side.

The positive side from the media is that at least they're showing that there is an issue happening in Canada, it's not a denial. One of the things that we (the NGO's) try to do is be clear on the issue. We try to communicate that the affect is not only in the sex trade. We are talking about how there's exploitation within the labour market and giving examples about how temporary agencies for work  have been playing a role with the victims of trafficking and how seasonal workers  are vulnerable to being trafficked, or to being exploited. Immigration policies facilitate trafficking happening because immigration policies don't have a clear focus or goal to end trafficking.  The changes in the immigration satisfy the needs of the big businesses to cover the labour demands. In that way, they (the government) are not using a holistic approach or an integrated approach to address trafficking when they bring temporary workers.

Elvina: Why do you think the issue is gaining attention?

Loly:  Well, some people may not like me saying this but I think that the attention came in 2001, September 11; afterwards there were all the protocol meetings with the United Nations to fix up their policies. Trafficking is being linked with criminal activity and trafficking became one of the issues that the United States picked up on for security and safety reasons.  It is now the fashion because everything being done is to try to get the big guys, the criminals.  But trafficking is an old issue if you review it, even in my experience working with refugee women. In the beginning of the 90s when the Soviet Union collapsed we saw young women coming to Canada claiming refugee status and they were women when they explained their stories, they had been trafficked all around and they ended up here in Canada. Trafficking is an issue that has been happening since colonial times.

Elvina: What are the important points that you believe are being overlooked?

Loly: Besides what I was saying about the lack of a gender perspective, I believe what has been overlooked is that the only real thing the government has done about trafficking is to change the criminal code for the criminalization of trafficking.  What has not been happening is that they are not looking at real protection for the women.  There is a temporary protection but it's kind of like a joke. Also there is no real training with a sensitivity session for the authorities on the issue of trafficking.  The government believes that protection is just to give a temporary residence permit and a temporary work permit and then they can make a decision after if they want to apply to stay in Canada but there are not enough clear options. Also, to get the temporary residence permit you have to go through several different interviews with the authorities.  The RCMP contacts the Canadian Border Service Agency if the person does not have documents and they do an analysis and evaluation to see if she is eligible to get a temporary residence permit.   Although the policy says that the woman can choose to collaborate with the authorities, she has the choice to give evidence, it's not compulsory, most of the time the interviews are with the RCMP, and they want evidence and want to use the woman to get evidence. 

Elvina: What do you think the potential risks are for women?

Loly:  Being deported because in most of the cases the women don't have status or their status is based on the employer. For example with the entertainment business the women have a work permit but she is limited by the terms of the work permit to the place where she originally worked. If she complains or if she is trafficked she will lose the employer and she will lose the status. That's one risk and another is that if she is removed from the situation and sent back to her country of origin she may end up back in the cycle. Another is safety because most of the time when women come from traffickers they also have a big debt and they need to pay that debt and even if they are removed they need to keep paying the debt to the traffickers.  That is a high risk situation and that's a problem when you don't provide specific and permanent protection. That's why women don't come out and you don't see that many women talking about trafficking or coming and looking for help both because they don't know what's available or that they know that there is not much choice here in Canada.

Elvina: How do you believe the issue should be framed?

Loly: I believe  we need to frame this issue with a gendered perspective and we need to develop a reasonable protocol, one that has the prosecution of the traffickers but gives real protection to women and provides all the services that they need.  Victims of trafficking need an integrated holistic approach. They will need a lot of emotional support, they need housing, they need status and they need choices.  With this approach they can choose to go back to their country of origin or stay in Canada.  Right now all victims of trafficking the first thing that they lose are their choices to make a decision.

Elvina: What suggestions do you have for community service organization workers when working with women who may have been trafficked?

Loly: First of all we need to keep informed. Second we need to have awareness training with an anti-oppression and gender analysis.  The minute that you talk with settlement workers or community workers about trafficking they are visualizing the victims that are portrayed by the media and all our lack of understanding comes up. I believe we need to have very specific training.  Another thing we need is to have real good outreach to the victims of trafficking, like radio ads in different languages, and we need to network.  You can start giving out a helpline phone number where women can get information and where they can see what are their possibilities and their choices. We also need to do a lot of advocacy with all the levels of government and we have to do it together; locally and especially provincially because there isn't a policy on protection for the victims of trafficking in the province of Ontario.  We need to lobby federally to get amendments to immigration legislation.  The Canadian Council for Refugees is doing this. There is a proposal that we are asking organizations to endorse on the website: http://www.ccrweb.ca/documents/traffaction.pdf     

Elvina: What recommendations would you make to government to support women who may have been trafficked?

Loly:  One idea is to have a provincial meeting with all the stakeholders; policy people, academia, community workers, victims of trafficking.  There are some victims who are very active in all areas.  From the conference we can come up with real recommendations. We also need to know what is happening here in Ontario, because the only people who know are the RCMP, and nothing is clear. I know nationally there is research happening, they are doing an investigation to come up with a policy but that's in the national arena. We need some local information too.  The RCMP has a specific unit on trafficking but right now we don't know who's representing Toronto. We know that they have a specific officer but we don't know who it is and they don't do any outreach that we have heard of.