What is human trafficking?
Human trafficking is a crime and human rights abuse that’s sometimes called “modern day slavery.”
There are different types of human trafficking that take place, including sex trafficking and labour trafficking. Forced marriage is also considered a form of human trafficking.
Traffickers control people in many ways, including psychological manipulation, emotional abuse, lies, addiction, threats, violence, isolation, and taking control of ID/documents and money.
Because this treatment can cause severe trauma, survivors often need intensive, specialized services and supports to rebuild their lives.
Sometimes human trafficking is confused with human smuggling (across borders). In reality, most of the people trafficked are girls and women who are Canadian citizens or permanent residents.
While human trafficking is a vastly under-reported crime, Ontario is a major centre for human trafficking in Canada, with about two-thirds of reported cases arising in Ontario.
Knowing the signs
Organizations that work to end human trafficking have identified a number of signs that may point to human trafficking:
- The person is not allowed to speak for themselves and their activities are controlled by someone else.
- The person is under 18 and involved in prostitution or sex work.
- The person is unpaid or paid very little to work, and seems to be treated poorly (long or unusual hours, not allowed breaks, forced to live in poor conditions, etc.).
- The person is repaying a large debt through labour or sex.
- The person seems fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid. They may avoid eye contact, seem fearful around police, etc.
- The person shows signs of abuse, such as bruising, cigarette burns, fractures, etc.
- The person has tattooing or branding symbols, particularly names.
- The person doesn’t have their own things or money, and doesn’t control their own passport or other documents.
- The person seems malnourished or lacks medical care.
- The person is moved frequently and may not know their surroundings well.
- The person has been reported missing.
Myths about human trafficking
Myth: Human trafficking is an international crime that involves sneaking someone across a border.
Fact: Human trafficking is sometimes confused with human smuggling, but in reality it may or may not involve moving someone across a border. In most reported cases of human trafficking in Ontario, the person trafficked is from Canada and is recruited within Canada.
Myth: Human trafficking happens in developing countries, not in places like Ontario.
Fact: Human trafficking occurs throughout the world, including here. According to the RCMP, there have been 269 cases in Ontario since 2005 where human trafficking specific charges were laid. Since human trafficking is an underreported crime, the actual number of cases is likely much larger.
Myth: All sex workers are victims of human trafficking.
Fact: If an adult chooses to engage in consensual, paid sex work on their own terms and is not controlled and exploited by another person, it is not considered human trafficking.
Myth: Sex trafficking can only happen to people who use drugs or have other serious risk factors.
Fact: While some groups have been identified as at-risk, there are also cases in which no known risk factors are present. In those cases, traffickers often target very young people and may build trust during a “grooming” period before exploitation begins.
Myth: If a person isn’t kept locked up or in chains they can always just leave.
Fact: Some people who are trafficked are controlled and monitored constantly and don’t have the opportunity to ask for help. Others may not realize or acknowledge what is happening to them or that it is a crime. In some cases, they may fear their trafficker or law enforcement too much to risk seeking help. They may also be manipulated to believe that the trafficker is the only person who cares about them and that they are best off staying with their trafficker.
Who is at risk of sex trafficking
- Most people who are trafficked for sex are women and girls, but boys, men and people who are LGBTQI2S are also targeted.
- The age of recruitment is as low as 12 or 13.
- Homeless and marginalized youth are targeted by sex traffickers.
- Youth who struggle with low self-esteem, bullying, discrimination, poverty, abuse, isolation and other social or family issues may be targeted.
- Indigenous women and girls are especially likely to be trafficked.
- Addiction, mental health issues and developmental disabilities are also risk factors.
The recruitment and “grooming” process:
Sex traffickers often recruit and groom people for trafficking by becoming a trusted friend or boyfriend.
Possible signs that someone is being groomed for sex trafficking include changes such as:
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Being secretive about their activities
- Having a new boyfriend, girlfriend or friend who they won’t introduce to friends and family
- Suddenly spending time with an older person or people
- Staying out more often and later
- Absences from school or a decline in school performance
- Wearing more sexualized clothing
- Having new clothing, jewelry etc. that they can’t afford to buy
- Suddenly having a new or second cell phone with a secret number
Facts about sex trafficking
- Language like “pimping,” “the game” and “the life” is sometimes used when talking about sex trafficking.
- Most police-reported cases of human trafficking in Ontario involve sex trafficking.
- Sex trafficking is different from consensual sex work – in trafficking situations, the trafficker is in control.
- A person can be trafficked anywhere, including in their home community.
- When a person under 18 is advertised for sex, it is a criminal offence – legally no one under the age of 18 years old can consent to engaging in sex work.
- Sex traffickers often control every aspect of the person’s life: when they eat and sleep, what they wear, who they talk to, etc.
- People who are being trafficked, as well as people come into contact with them, may not know or understand that a crime is taking place.
- Most often, sex traffickers purposely develop a bond with the person they are trafficking, in order to manipulate them and make them believe they are better off staying than leaving. For this and other reasons, the trafficked person may fear and resist police intervention.
- It can be very difficult for a survivor to leave a trafficking situation. It can take several attempts before they are able to find assistance.
Who is at risk of labour trafficking
- Being a newcomer or having uncertain immigration status is the largest risk factor for labour trafficking.
- Other factors, such as being homeless, can also make somebody more likely to be trafficked.
- People who are isolated or who can’t speak English or French are especially vulnerable to trafficking, and may have the hardest time getting help.
- Internationally, there have been human trafficking cases involving construction, manufacturing, mining, hospitality, salons, agriculture, domestic work, sales and other industries.
Facts about labour trafficking
- Language like “forced labour,” “servant” and “servitude” are sometimes used when talking about labour trafficking.
- “Debt bondage” is a form of labour trafficking where a person is told they must work to pay off a large, unexpected and illegal debt.
- People in other countries and newcomers may be recruited by someone from their home country or from Canada who makes false promises about what the job is and how much it pays.
- The person may not know their rights in Ontario, may not know how to get help, or may fear reporting to police.
- Labour traffickers often take away passports and other documents, and sometimes control where the person stays.
How to get help
- If there is immediate danger or if you suspect a child under 18 is being trafficked, call 911 or your local police service.