{Who To Believe: Human Trafficking and the 2010 Olympics}

The below article was first posted on the blog of McGill University’s Faculty of Law‘s 2009 International Criminal Law Seminar.

A month ago I was walking East Hastings, a tourist observing the daily drama of this infamous neighborhood. Two weeks later, I remembered this walk as I listened to a panel on human trafficking. Mobina Jaffer, one of the panelists and a Senator for British Columbia, connected the two events. Her message was clear: we must be diligent in fighting the trafficking of people, particularly in Vancouver, and as the Olympics approach.

Yet despite very similar speeches from four other panelists, I left the event torn between the majority’s perspective and that of the two remaining panelists who represented Stella. This group provides information and support to Montreal’s sex workers. Its confrontational message, expressed by two former sex workers and hailed by several others in the audience, flew in the face of the story told by the more mainstream panelists.

So many issues get caught in the debate over sex trafficking and the 2010 Olympics that it can be very hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad. This post is intended to spur critical thought rather than provide a unified perspective.

On the periphery of the debate over human trafficking are questions about the profound methodological problems behind research into human trafficking and the terms used to define it. At the core of the controversy is a debate over the legitimacy of sex work itself. Questions remain concerning the effect of the legalization of prostitution on sex workers as well as about the necessity of a “coercion” requirement in the definition of trafficking.

Many contest the validity of statistics on the trafficking of persons as distant extrapolations from loosely related data or estimates based on small and poorly defined sample sets. Those circulated most widely are often the sensationalist result of media frenzies. Even after extensive research, their sources can be fleeting. For instance, no source would take responsibility for the prediction that 40 000 individuals would be trafficked into Germany for the 2006 World Cup yet scores of major European media outlets carried stories citing this number. Moreover, many contend no significant increase in trafficking took place.

There is little doubt that so-called “abolitionist” organizations fighting the legalization of prostitution played a significant role in disseminating the exaggerated figure. Their fanning of public fear in the lead-up to the soccer championships resulted in raids and significant policy reforms in Germany where prostitution continues to be legal.

Nevertheless, the even more widely cited fact that human trafficking is the third most profitable criminal enterprise worldwide is almost certainly true. There is no question that the scale of this problem, which the UN estimates affects 4 million individuals, is immense. Further, few refute the doubling of human trafficking victims in Greece surrounding the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The debate is no less intense at the “city-scale” than nationally or internationally. In anticipation of the Olympics, the gentrification of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, where much of the city’s sex work currently takes place, spurs ongoing controversy. Will moving the city’s many poor addicts out of this downtown neighborhood better their lives or only those of the city’s wealthy inhabitants? Will the Olympics increase the city’s trade in trafficked individuals and if so, what should it do to remedy this influx?

If, as the RCMP estimated in 2004, 800 people are trafficked into Canada each year, 600 destined for the sex trade, the answers to such questions could have a significant impact on crime and its victims in Canada. Such trafficking could also affect our relationship with our neighbour to the South. The additional 1 500 to 2 200 individuals trafficked through Canada into the US resulted in, inter alia, the Department of State listing Vancouver as a destination city for individuals trafficked from Asia.

One of the most difficult issues is criminalizing traffickers without negatively affecting those being trafficked or sex workers in general. Poorly drafted legislation often criminalizes the victims as they are deported back to conditions worse than those they fled. Such systems arguably reinforce trafficking. By making sex workers blameworthy, they force them underground where they are more susceptible to abuse and illegality.

In this respect, lack of consent appears to be a key issue in differentiating “voluntary” sex workers from those who are trafficked. Yet the drafters of the principle international treaty on trafficking, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, intentionally included a clause stating that “the consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation…shall be irrelevant.”

Defining exploitation then becomes essential. While not impossible – progressive states could include gross inequity in wages in their legislation, for instance – such definitions could present equally substantial obstacles to prosecution.

The response to the Trafficking Protocol comes in the form of a recent letter written by Southeast Asian sex workers to the UN Office for Drugs and Crime. Echoing Stella’s message, this letter essentially asks the UN to leave the sex workers alone as its increased attention is threatening their only source of income and endangering their lives.

These Asian sex workers have counterparts in the Netherlands, Germany and Spain who, reacting to the paternalism of criminal prosecution, argue that they deserve the agency to choose their occupation and consent to sex work.

Despite being the easiest element to agree on, the protection of the victims of trafficking remains neglected. Countries should be offering temporary residency and more extensive support to “survivors” but the stigma attached to sex work and immigration laws often impede such necessary steps.

The Canadian Standing Committee on the Status of Women recommended that the government implement a plan prior to the opening of the 2010 Olympics to curtail the trafficking of women and girls for sexual purposes during the games and after. This plan should focus more on the protection of Vancouver’s sex workers and less on making Canada look tough on traffickers and good for the Games’ sponsors.

In order to fill this lacuna we have to provide trafficking victims with health services and guarantees against prosecution. Most importantly, we must separate the traffickers from those being trafficked and voluntary sex workers from victims of transnational crime. Future research should begin by asking how to best undertake this differentiation.

{Who To Believe: Human Trafficking and the 2010 Olympics}

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