03/25/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/24/2014 05:59 EDT

Human Traffickers Going Unpunished In Canada, Experts Say

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After nearly a decade, a law designed to catch human traffickers who exploit vulnerable people has netted few charges and even fewer convictions in Canada, anti-trafficking advocates complain.

There have been 35 human trafficking convictions since new laws to combat the problem came into effect in 2005, according to Public Safety Canada’s latest report.

Among those cases, at least nine of the victims were under the age of 18 and two of those 35 cases involved trafficking for forced labour.

When it comes to charges, Statistics Canada data shows that 125 people were charged in Canada between 2005 and 2012 in incidents in which trafficking in persons was the most serious offence.

Under a Criminal Code provision established in November 2005, people can be charged with trafficking in persons if they recruit, conceal or otherwise exercise control over a person for the purpose of exploiting them.

Exploitation, under the law, means the victim believes that disobeying the trafficker puts their safety or the safety of loved ones at risk.

Human trafficking can include forced labour, forced prostitution and other sex-related work such as working for massage parlours and escort services.

‘Too many people are getting away with it’

Winnipeg Conservative MP Joy Smith, an anti-human trafficking advocate, says more charges and convictions are warranted.

“I think too many are getting away with it,” she said. “Basically because it was under the public radar screen, police weren’t trained for human trafficking.”

Smith said that’s now changing, but while police are getting trained, it’s up to the courts to follow through.

“I'm very proud of our police forces — I have to say that, not just because my son's a police officer and I've seen the sacrifice they've put in,” she said.

“But when they get the cases to court, the judges have to understand what human trafficking is. They too let people off, and you wonder, ‘How does this happen?’”

The Conservative government has invested heavily to combat human trafficking. One of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's campaign promises in 2011 was to establish a national action plan.

The government committed $25 million spread over four years. This is on top of millions of dollars spent in provinces like Manitoba, which devotes $10 million a year to its sexual exploitation strategy.

Despite all the efforts to combat the issue, Smith says more is needed.

“I'm not satisfied yet with the amount of funding, and I'm not satisfied with the lack of education,” she said.

CBC News spoke to a woman who says she was trafficked.

"Christine," whose identity CBC is concealing, is a Winnipeg woman in her early 30s. She says the law did not protect her, and the justice system doesn’t see trafficked women as the victims of crime.

“Nobody bothers to take it the one step further and, again, ask, ‘Why are you out there? What is it that's put you out there?’” she said.

Christine ran away from her suburban Winnipeg home a decade ago and was introduced to the city’s tough North End crack scene through men that she was dating.

“I had gone from the suburban, going to the clubs and doing coke on weekends, to suddenly selling the drug in the North End,” she said, adding that she eventually met her trafficker after becoming addicted to crack.

She moved in with his family and eventually they threatened to kick her out if she didn’t start prostituting herself to support their drug habits.

Feeling trapped, Christine agreed.

“When I was done with a john, my trafficker would be right on the doorstep,” she said. “I would barely even be able to get to the front steps and he would take the money out of my hand.”

“I became their possession to be able to get drugs,” she added.

Human trafficking under-reported, says prosecutor

Jennifer Mann, a Manitoba senior Crown attorney, said there is no question that human trafficking is happening, but it’s a crime that is under-reported.

“We’ve had very few cases come to our attention in prosecutions,” she said. “Victims of that crime don’t typically go to police and report what’s happening to them.”

Det.-Sgt. Darryl Ramkissoon of the Winnipeg Police Service agrees that few victims come forward.

“A lot of times the girls don’t want to go through the court process and it ends there,” he said.

“A few of them will tell us they are being forced to do it.”

He added that other charges, such as living off the avails of prostitution, are often laid in order to get victims out of the situation they are in.

“At least we get them to a safe place,” he said.

Mann said the penalties for trafficking can be severe, up to 14 years in prison and even life in prison if other factors, like sexual assault and forcible confinement, are present in the case.

“They’re certainly significant,” she said. “They send the message to offenders that if you engage in this kind of conduct, you will be sentenced quite severely.”

Sentences for the 35 convictions obtained in Canada ranged from one day to nine years imprisonment. One company was fined more than $200,000.

The majority of charges were laid in Ontario. Saskatchewan and the North show zero charges.

Manitoba also has zero charges, according to the Statistics Canada data, which only counts incidents in which trafficking was the most serious crime committed.

There may be additional charges that were not captured by the StatsCan survey. In fact, one Winnipeg woman was charged in 2010, but that was later dropped.

About half of all trafficked persons are aboriginal

The lack of convictions among provinces with a high proportion of aboriginal people is concerning to Diane Redsky, project director of the Canadian Women's Foundation’s national task force on human trafficking of women and girls in Canada.

Redsky said her research shows that about 50 per cent of all trafficked persons are aboriginal.

“There is clearly an over-representation of aboriginal women,” she said.

“We know that the majority of women and girls that are trafficked in Canada are marginalized, so they come from aboriginal, immigrant and refugee, racialized women, as well as women living in poverty.”

More than 90 per cent of the convictions in Canada involve domestic human trafficking; the remaining cases involved people being brought into Canada from another country.

That’s a gap that trafficking expert and author Benjamin Perrin says is “deeply concerning,” as his research shows there are a large number of international victims in Canada from eastern Europe and Asia.

“Their traffickers have never been prosecuted and held accountable,” he said.

“This suggests that the criminals behind these enterprises are getting away with impunity, profiting lucratively, and we should be extremely concerned that’s the case.”

But not all experts believe international sex trafficking is so rampant.

John Ferguson, a retired RCMP superintendent, says the lack of convictions around international sex trafficking in Canada may indicate that it is not that widespread.

“After so many years, after a decade of enforcement when you have so few charges,” he said, “one can only surmise that the government’s enforcement efforts have been in the wrong direction.”

Ferguson said human trafficking for forced labour is the main form of trafficking in this country.

“I think sex trafficking does exist on the international stage in Canada, but not to any great extent,” he said.

Too few questions being asked

Perrin said women are being trafficked into massage parlours and other sex-related industries, with too few questions being asked about how they got there and who is controlling them.

“We’ve documented cases of massage parlours in Canada being used essentially for debt bondage,” he said.

Debt bondage involves women who come to Canada and are told they cannot leave the industry until they pay off an inflated debt to the trafficker that can be more than $50,000.

Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch told CBC News the federal government is very concerned about human trafficking.

“These are heinous crimes. The individuals that are perpetrating these crimes need to be brought to prosecution, they need to be found,” she said.

She points to Public Safety Canada’s national action plan and more than $25 million in federal funding that has gone into developing a national strategy to combat human trafficking.

She added that more than $2.5 million in funding from her department has gone into programming to help identify challenges and take action on human trafficking across the country.

“We’ve funded local community projects to make sure that Canadians are aware of what is going on and they can deal with it.” she said. “Over 52,000 Canadians have been educated on how to identify victims of these tragedies.”

“My focus is making sure that the most vulnerable in society, those victims of human trafficking — mainly children and women — are the ones that we’re looking out for.” she said. “This has to be stopped.”

Approximately 80 cases in which charges under human-trafficking-specific offences have been laid are currently before the courts.

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