Op-Ed: Canada’s new immigration measure and human trafficking

Aug. 16, 2012, 1:02 a.m.

Canada’s new anti-immigration measure and human trafficking On Wednesday, July 4, Canada’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney, announced new immigration rules targeting temporary foreign workers in sex trade-related jobs. The measures target strip clubs, escort services and massage parlors, which will no longer have access to temporary foreign workers. This might be an important and timely step toward preventing human trafficking, and through measures viewed favorably by most governments: legislation and policy that tightens immigration.

But critics of the measure believe it discriminates against sex workers and pushes foreign dancers and potential victims into a more vulnerable situation.

Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) was created to fill immediate skills and labor shortages when Canadians and permanent residents are not available. The TFWP supports economic growth by recruiting foreign workers into lawful occupations and regulating employer and worker compliance. The program also monitors working conditions and salaries. But according to the findings of the joint program of two Canadian agencies — the Criminal Intelligence Unit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Human Trafficking National Coordination Center — organized crime networks have been exploiting these temporary visas to facilitate the illegal entry of foreign women to work in escort services, exotic dance clubs, massage parlors and even residential brothels that may operate as legitimate businesses. As such, according to the Canadian authorities, restricting visas for work in these fields will address the problem of sex trafficking in Canada.

If these women face the risk of sexual exploitation, and if denying them visas will keep them away from unscrupulous employers, then the new regulations should be cause to celebrate. Unfortunately, there is reason to doubt their efficacy. The main issue that needs to be confronted is not immigration status but rather the problem of differentiating between workers who are exploited and those who are not. While the identification of human-trafficking victims among sex workers may be difficult for law enforcement authorities, identifying control tactics employed by traffickers to retain victims in exploitative situations is not. Such tactics include isolation from workers’ social networks, forcible confinement, withholding of identification documents, imposition of strict rules, limitation of movement, threats, force, coercion, deceit and violence. All these practices committed against any individual are unacceptable. While they may strike many as useful (while scoring points with those opposed to liberal immigration policies), the new measures also fail to address the root causes of human trafficking and dodge a painful reality that most Canadians, and elected authorities as well, would like to avoid: the fact that Canada, like many other countries, is rife with structures and practices that facilitate and tolerate gender-based discrimination and violence. Effective measures to curb human trafficking must address the attitudes and actions of the public, civil society organizations, state authorities and businesses. In addition, it is also a mistake to think that Canada can solve the problem of human trafficking on its own. Human trafficking is a problem that requires international coordination and cooperation. Among its causes, human trafficking is fueled by poverty, income inequality and marginalization within and among nations.

Government responses to human trafficking should include a combination of prevention, criminal prosecution and victim protection. For instance, governments should promote initiatives to enhance economic and educational opportunities for potential victims of trafficking. Governments should provide victims services for their protection, reintegration and rehabilitation, and they should allow for effective investigation and prosecution. Very often, trafficked persons do not report abuse to authorities because they fear detention or deportation. Governments can also ensure that victims have access to the legal redress necessary to obtain financial compensation for the trafficking crimes committed against them, a cutting-edge approach worthy of Canada’s humanitarian tradition. In sum, anti-trafficking action requires more than partial measures that, conveniently, promote anti-immigration discourse.

Nadejda Marques is the manager of the Program on Human Rights at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at Stanford University. She coordinates the program’s research and activities on human trafficking that focus on policy recommendations to better address the multiple dimensions of human trafficking.

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