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Will Olympics Be Magnet for Human Traffickers?

Awareness campaign slated for fall, but no convictions yet.

By Doerthe Keilholz 4 Sep 2008 |

Doerthe Keilholz is a reporter at The Tyee.

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Campaigns target a global scourge.

"Walk in a punter. Walk out a rapist," potential sex buyers are cautioned these days by posters in pubs and nightclubs in England. It's part of the "Blue Blindfold" campaign launched by the U.K. government in preparation for the country's 2012 Olympics. The drive is levelled against human trafficking, which often includes forcing women into prostitution.

In Athens during the 2004 Olympic Games, human trafficking cases nearly doubled, according to the Greek Ministry of Public Safety.

Government officials and human rights activists in Canada are worried that Vancouver's 2010 Olympics could become a similar magnet for traffickers and their victims.

But Canada has yet to successfully prosecute a single person for human trafficking, although the country has been singled out as a major link in the grim global industry in a U.S. State Department report. Human trafficking, says the report, is the world's third most lucrative international crime business after drugs and arms smuggling, and Vancouver is a hub.

The coming Olympics will only fuel the trade, predict authorities.

Not only in Athens but at the soccer World Cup in Germany, "there was definitely a demonstrated increase in the exploitation of women in relation to those events," says Robin Pike, head of B.C.'s Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons (OCTIP), an arm of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.

Taking the UK's efforts as a role model, OCTIP started to work with the Salvation Army, which will launch their "The truth isn't sexy" anti-trafficking campaign this October in Vancouver

Canada lags in convictions

In 2004, the RCMP estimated that about 600 people are trafficked to Canada for sexual exploitation each year and another 1,500 to 2,200 are brought through the country on their way to the United States.

Police and border officials need to be sensitized towards trafficking victims, says Norm Massie, former RCMP human trafficking coordinator. "We get the victim out of the situation and reassure them so that over time and with the right people in place... we can gain their support in order to gather the evidence necessary to advance criminal charges."

While several criminal charges have been laid over the last years against alleged traffickers, not a single person has been convicted of human trafficking so far.

Others countries are more successful in prosecuting offenders: Sweden had 15 convictions for human trafficking in 2005 and 21 in 2006. In the United States, 75 defendants have been convicted of human trafficking since 2001.

'Under the radar... very challenging'

The testimony of a trafficked victim is often the only clue to find the offender, and victims are hard to track down, says Pike. "Human trafficking is very clandestine and under the radar and it is the detection and identification of trafficked victims that has proved to be very challenging in about every country in the world."

"It's a very new offence... It's only been on the books for a few years," says University of B.C. law professor Benjamin Perrin. "Some prosecutors and police are reluctant to [allege] this offence because they are not sure how the court will interprete it."

Nakpamgi: A first conviction?

In May of 2002, Canada ratified the United Nations Palermo Protocol, which commits all undersigned countries to protecting trafficked victims and punishing those who carry out the trafficking. Three years later, Canada's Criminal Code was amended to include laws against human trafficking.

The new laws are getting a first test in Toronto, where Imani Nakpamgi pled guilty to forcing two 14- and 15-year-old Canadian girls, who were reported missing, into prostitution after advertising them on Craigslist in sexual poses.

For Perrin, the Nakpamgi case is also significant for eventually calling attention to domestic women and children being trafficked as well. "For many years most people in Canada simply thought of human trafficking as involving foreign nationals," says Perrin. "Canadians realize more and more that Canadian women and girls are being used as commodities in the sex trade and Canada needs to do more to punish those who are causing this suffering."

No long-term solutions for victims

Convictions are further hampered in Canada because there is too little incentive for victims to work with government officals, says Daisy Kler from Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter. "[Trafficked women] are here completely illegal... and because they are illegal, they are afraid to use the system. Rightly so, because most of the women are sent back once they are identified as being trafficked."

Most victims of trafficking are eligible to apply for a Temporary Resident Permit (TRP).

From May 2006 up to today, 43 victims of trafficking have been referred to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, of which 17 have been granted a TRP. "That doesn't mean the others have been deported," says CIC spokesperson Karen Shedd. "They might have applied for other kinds of permits, and not all victims want to stay."

While TRPs have been recently extended to six months, Kler fears that victims still have few chances to build up a new life in Canada. "We know of six trafficked people who asked for TRPs and they got that but none have been granted citizenship," says Kler. "So part of the solution is to offer women who are trafficked a genuine route to citizenship whether or not they testify against their trafficker."

The CIC holds no records on how many trafficked persons applied for permanent residence or citizenship.

Trafficked women, especially when they come from poor and unstable countries, need to be protected from being sent back, says Kler. Too often, once returned to their homeland, the women find themselves vulnerable to further exploitation.

'The truth isn't sexy'

Backers of Vancouver's upcoming "The Truth Isn't Sexy" campaign against human trafficking point to a similar effort carried out during the 2006 World Cup soccer competition held in Germany. The nation-wide effort used posters, shirts, whistles and beer coasters to get its message out.

The German government says its studies found there was less human trafficking than anticipated during the contest.

Pike hopes that a public campaign will make Canadians more aware of trafficked victims in their vicinity and contact public services if they believe they've spotted a victim.

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