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Human Trafficking in Ontario - An uncomfortable reality

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

A shocking discovery headlined the news recently. 13 victims of human trafficking were rescued by the Ontario Police in Peel Region. Another instance that highlights the problem in Canada and Ontario as hosts of the crime of human trafficking. Yes, human trafficking is happening in Canada – in our backyards and around the corner.

This reality is uncomfortable for many people in different ways. It is not pleasant to discover that this is happening here. We normalize that human trafficking occurs in other places, "in poor regions, in undeveloped countries where people are less civilized".

Yesterday someone commented to me that the most annoying thing is that the police are regarded as the saviour. «The police rescued» the media says and the police are applauded for a job well done. What bothers me is that the media looks at the status of people after the fact. The four news articles I read yesterday describe the general facts, emphasizing the trafficking survivors’ immigration status.

Excuse me! We are talking about victims of a crime. We are talking about 13 people who experienced the crime of human trafficking. Thirteen people who suffered deprivation of liberty, mobility, personal autonomy and agency. These people were essentially kidnapped, held captive, exploited at work, and in some cases, killed. The media never referred to this reality, never investigated the duration these people have been living in situations of slavery, or the kind of degrading treatment they had to endure. Nor was it questioned how thirteen people could have been kidnapped and forced to live in those conditions without the authorities noticing. The media does not not address the human rights violations that have occurred or about the conditions of degradation of these people. Nor the ability of these criminals to manoeuvre within the Canadian landscape. Why? Because they are not Canadian? Is this why the question that is asked about these people is what is their immigration status?

Human trafficking is a recognized crime throughout the world and in Canada. The United Nations approved the Palermo Protocol in 2000, which was signed by Canada in 2002. The Canadian Penal Code punishes and contains measures to prevent and prosecute the commission of the crime of human trafficking. The primary responsibility for preventing human trafficking falls to the Government of Canada. Provincial governments and local police also play a role in crime prevention.

Criminal activity is complex. It is possible to evade authorities and hide activities. Therefore, the secondary response, in the event of criminal activity, is the apprehension and prosecution of criminals by local police. This should not be the first response of the police. It should be a secondary response to compensate for their negligence in the fulfillment of the first police function: to protect people.

Governments and the police are accountable for their actions or omissions.

Human trafficking is a clear violation of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that human rights are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace (UN, 2003). When a human rights violation occurs, the government is responsible for responding to the victims and the restitution of their rights. These two conditions are a priority.

In this recent case of human trafficking, the priority should be the thirteen victims who “suffered harm as result of the commission of any crime” (International Criminal Court). It is critical that these survivors of human trafficking receive preferential attention: protection, rehabilitation, and physical and psychological support so that the restitution of their violated rights is achieved. It is also critical that the criminals are captured and punished. After these two conditions have been met, then it is fair to discuss the immigration status of these people and to give them the option to decide to remain in Canada or to return to their country of origin.

When a government puts the condition of immigration status before the condition of victim who has suffered harm, it causes additional harm. In this situation, as in others that have occurred previously, it is necessary to first prioritize the protection of human rights, second, the protection of the person as a victim and the restoration of their rights. Only in doing so will the human rights commitments that Canada has signed and has committed to fulfill be realized. Only then will Canada be recognized as a country that truly recognizes, respects and protects human rights and human dignity in the global fight against the terrible crime of human trafficking.

Eva Rodriguez-Diaz

Manager of education and prevention of Human Trafficking at the Mary Ward Centre.

This article was originally published in DIÁLOGOS Magazine on June 3, 2023.

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