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Human Trafficking - A threat to international students in Canada

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

International students in Canada, are a growing population.

One of the most notable news stories this year is the growth of international students in Canada, a situation that adds to the indicators measuring a return to normalcy or a return to pre-Covid-19 conditions, a factor of great significance for Canadian politics and even economics.

Canada, characterized as a safe, friendly and highly educated nation, has been attractive for many families to choose as a destination for their sons and daughters of all ages to come and study. The number of international students in Canada grew year after year but as happened in many other aspects the Covid-19 pandemic slowed down that trend.

Talking about international students living in Canada the figure in 2022 is 388,782, of which 39% study in College and 61% in University. The highest percentage comes from India, China and other Asian countries, such as North Korea, Bangladesh and Iran; the information for Latin America is less clear due to the disaggregation of data by countries, highlighting those that in a certain period had the highest number of students, Mexico and Brazil set the trend and, at some points, Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Colombia stand out. Latin America does not manage to occupy a significant place in the statistics for international students every year.

But... there is an issue that calls attention and that should be seen from another perspective, for that some news and reports, almost isolated, illustrate the situation on how international students in addition to accessing a high-level educational proposal in Canada also become, unfortunately, potential victims of human trafficking. This stark reality that is fostered by this silent crime, which is growing at an accelerated rate worldwide and which Covid-19 helped to increase.

International students in Canada have reported being victims of human trafficking, whether as unsecured employees, victims of labour exploitation, or as victims of sex trafficking that traps mainly women and LGBTIQ+ diverse populations. Students from developing countries, many of whom arrive with fewer resources, must look for ways to help/contribute to their own support, this situation puts them in the sights of trafficking networks or individuals who take advantage of their need to exploit them. There are also companies and businesses that take advantage, of hiring them informally and without the minimum legal guarantees.

Human trafficking is also a growing crime.

Canadian society sees human trafficking as a distant crime faced by poor and violent countries; unfortunately, that perception is not so real, human trafficking is growing in Canada closer than we think and it grows hidden in silence and ignorance, fertile ground to spread.

Human trafficking has different ways of operating: sex trafficking, labour exploitation, organ trafficking, begging and the commission of other crimes, and even for forced marriages. In Canada, sex trafficking and labour exploitation are the most prevalent.

Criminal human trafficking networks take advantage of the most vulnerable conditions to trap their victims: lack of legal status to stay and/or work, the need to generate additional income to support themselves in a costly country like Canada, lack of knowledge of the language or limited command of it, staying alone far from family and support networks, among other circumstances, are factors that criminals take advantage of.

Some federal and provincial government agencies have created specialized offices and programs to prevent and combat human trafficking. There are dozens of non-profit organizations operated by non-governmental organizations, churches, civil society organizations, and even academia that have promoted and supported programs or projects to prevent and combat human trafficking and assist survivors of this crime.

Sex trafficking accounts for 70% of human trafficking in Canada, it preys mostly on young women and even girls, 93% of sex trafficking victims were born in Canada, and a victim can be as young as 12 and 13 years old. Of course, it is urgent to act in an assertive manner, preventing this form of trafficking is a great necessity. But, there is no disaggregated data to indicate whether these young Canadian women have roots in other countries, being girls who are first or second-generation migrant families in Canada, and targeting concrete prevention actions on certain groups - if necessary.

But there is also growing labour exploitation, less known, and less talked about. Migrants and refugees are the main victims of this form of trafficking because they do not have legal status, they do not have work permits, they do not speak the language, they have not been able to validate their studies in Canada, etc. The reasons are diverse, but there is no excuse. These are people who do legal work without legal contracts, people who because of their status receive less pay than established and/or do not have the established benefits. Labour exploitation operates under the curtain of legitimate job offers.

After a review on the web of materials and activities carried out in the first semester of 2022 to inform and address the issue, I found a total of 93 different actions: webinars, articles in newspapers, radio or television, interviews with people from government and other entities, dialogues with survivors, etc.

I want to comment on 3 major findings, which should be understood taking into account that human trafficking, like all crimes, grows hidden - the less it is talked about, the less it is known, the less it is prevented and the less it is prosecuted; and it is a crime that has a very low level of denunciation, so the official information, figures and statistics do not correspond to reality.

3 findings to highlight
  1. Sex trafficking occupies the majority of these publications, it really worries the Canadian society and government that the main victims of this crime are born in Canada, but as I said, there are no figures about the origin of their families, to determine their migratory origin, race or, condition of greater vulnerability. The work with survivors is also mostly oriented toward those who were victims of sex trafficking.

  2. The publications on labour exploitation, in addition to being few, all correspond to the migrant and refugee population, who, due to their conditions of legal recognition and their lack of cultural belonging, are the most vulnerable to being victims of this crime. Because it is not reported, it is almost impossible to know the real dimension of this crime.

  3. During the first months of 2022 there were a number of reports published about international students from developing countries who were victims of human trafficking, either labour exploitation or sex trafficking. National statistics also do not provide specific information on international student victims, which would help to understand the dimension of the problem and the level of risk in order to focus on concrete actions targeted at this group. This was a series of articles and each one included a case.

Content originally published in CORREO Canadiense, 2022 - Eva Rodriguez-Diaz, Manager of Education and Prevention on Human Trafficking at Mary Ward Centre

Actions to help end human trafficking in Canada
  • Talk about and acknowledge that human trafficking is a crime present and affecting Canada, including newcomers, raising awareness of the risk to young women and girls as the population most affected by sex trafficking.

  • Report any suspicious actions or behaviours that affect people within the family, community, workplace and schools, taking preventative action before it is too late.

  • Talk within the home about human trafficking, building trust in children so that they will talk about any risky situations within the home rather than with strangers who may take advantage of them. Trust is a very important protective factor to safeguard young people and minors.

  • Create spaces in schools, colleges and universities to share information on human trafficking on a permanent basis, alerting about the risks and providing information on how to prevent becoming a victim of this crime.

  • Create spaces in schools, colleges and universities to dialogue, share experiences, warn about the strategies that criminals use to recruit young people into their networks and, if possible, create joint prevention strategies.

  • Create and raise awareness about labour exploitation from a rights perspective for migrants and international students with work permits.

  • Report any human trafficking-related issues to 1-833-900-101, and for labour exploitation to the Ontario Ministry of Labour at 1-888-914.1108.

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