Friday, February 13, 2009

Mark Hasiuk

Human trafficking thrives under radar

Vancouver, province unarmed in international war against pimps

Been on Craigslist lately?

The online flea market, which attracts garage sale aficionados and ticket scalpers, also includes an "erotic" section featuring thousands of Vancouver-area ads with titles such as "Young Girl — Fashion Model" and "Sexy New Asian Girl." The ads are short on details. They typically include a phone number accompanied by a photo — usually a young Asian woman in lingerie or a bikini. In some cases, the girl's eyes are blocked out to prevent precise identification.

The United Nations has branded Canada — along with other western countries including Great Britain and the United States — a destination country for human trafficking. Official statistics don't exist. However, groups such as the Salvation Army and UNICEF say thousands of people — mainly women — are trafficked into Canada's sex trade each year.

In Vancouver, 65 de facto brothels — officially known as health enhancement centres — operate legally. An unknown number of private brothels, which rely heavily on human trafficking, operate in backrooms and basements around the city.

UBC law professor Ben Perrin, Canada's foremost expert on human trafficking — both domestic and international — is gravely concerned about the women who dominate Vancouver's sex trade. He's got a few questions for local government and law enforcement.

"Can you tell me for sure none of those women are underage?" asks Perrin. "How many are here because of force, fraud or coercion? How many are not able to leave because they are told they owe a significant debt, or other threats?"

Sadly, those questions are unanswerable because Vancouver — like B.C. and most other parts of Canada — is woefully unarmed in the battle against human trafficking, a growing criminal phenomenon that rivals the drug trade in scope.

So what's city hall, which receives a yearly $217 business licence fee from every health enhancement centre, doing about it?

Nothing. Human trafficking is a non-issue at 12th and Cambie — although last week Vision Mayor Gregor Robertson unveiled the "Greenest City Action Team" aimed at conserving water and saving June bugs.

What about the provincial government?

The well-meaning folks at the 18-month-old Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons, established under the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, are understaffed (five employees in two B.C. offices). Their "awareness" campaign aimed at government officials is necessary, but not nearly enough. "We need to move past the awareness stage," says Perrin, "and start to identify victims and doing proactive police investigations into these organized crime networks."

The Vancouver Police Department, which is responsible for investigating our city's massage parlors, refused to comment on this story. The department's silence mirrors its inaction to date. Perrin notes that Europe and the United States have extensive networks and specialized NGOs charged with identifying trafficking victims, including human trafficking task forces in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco.

"The 'we don't know if it's happening' explanation is, in my view, significantly detracting from our ability to deal with this problem," says Perrin. "It reflects a lack of awareness about what's really going on, and it's unfortunate it takes us to do this research to expose this problem."

But in Canada, there is hope. The Peel Regional Police force in Ontario last year helped convict two people of human trafficking. And last month, Joy Smith, a Conservative MP from Manitoba, proposed a bill that would impose a five-year minimum sentence on criminals trafficking children under the age of 18.

Perrin, who helped draft the bill, also wants Canada to follow the United States, which requires a nominal credit card fee to post an ad on the "erotic" section of Craigslist.

If a prostitute is later identified as a victim of trafficking, the credit card holder can be pursued by law enforcement. According to Perrin, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark said Canadian authorities have expressed no interest in similar measures.

Earlier this week, Olympic boosters began the "one-year-away" countdown to the 2010 Games, when one million visitors from around the world flock to the Lower Mainland and Whistler. According to Perrin, human traffickers are also eying 2010. "No one is claiming the 2010 Games will create a new problem," says Perrin. "But it will make an existing problem worse."

© Vancouver Courier 2009

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Created: February 23, 2009
Last modified: June 20, 2009
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