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Human Trafficking Conference in London: A Human Rights Approach

A London Ontario conference on Human Trafficking put the focus squarely on protecting the human rights of people who have experienced situations of human trafficking.  It was a wonderful contrast to much of the discussion on human trafficking in Canada, discussion that is focused on putting criminals in jail. Not that it isn’t important to put traffickers out of circulation – it is! But such a focus becomes skewed when it is not held in tension with the need to protect the human rights of people who have been trafficked.

NGOs that are engaged in the issue of human trafficking are soon confronted with the tension between prosecution and protection. And right from the Palermo Protocol, we see that this tension has not been held well: The Protocol had some articles that were obligatory for nations that signed and other articles that were optional. The articles addressing concerns of prosecution were obligatory; the articles on protecting human rights were optional.

We see a similar kind of development in Canada where our national response to human trafficking has focused primarily on efforts to prosecute traffickers and only secondarily on efforts to protect the human rights of people who have been trafficked. So, we have a Temporary Resident Permit (TRP) which gives temporary status (180 days for a reflection period) to people who have been trafficked but it is critically flawed; so much so that those who should be accessing this permit choose not to do so because they don’t feel sufficiently protected by the process. And even though, a person doesn’t have to be cooperating with law enforcement to receive the initial TRP, NGOs are seeing that the trafficked person’s TRP is unlikely to get extended without that cooperation with law enforcement. This leaves the survivor between a rock and hard place: frightened that they will get deported if their story is not believed by the CIC officer and frightened of what will happen if they testify.  In fact, many internationally trafficked persons choose to go underground when they finally escape from their trafficker because most have huge debts to pay and they can’t take the chance of being deported before they pay off these debts. As a result, they may end up in a situation that is worse than the one they just left.

Canada can and must do better for its temporary foreign workers.  This is key to the prevention of human trafficking.  But then, once we are dealing with situations of human trafficking, it is critical to hold the tension between prosecution and protection.  Ironically, when we lose our hold on this tension, and the emphasis is on prosecution over protection, it actually undermines the prosecution side of the equation because, when people don’t feel protected enough to come forward, it’s that much easier for traffickers to get away with their crimes.


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