What is Human Trafficking?

The office of the United nations High Commissioner for Human Rights defines "trafficking in persons" as:
The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

Human trafficking is modern-day slavery! It exists in virtually every country in the world today and takes many forms.

Sex Trafficking

Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is often the first thing people think of when they hear 'human trafficking'. When an adult is coerced, forced, or deceived into performing commercial sexual acts, that person is a victim of human trafficking. If the adult initially consents but is maintained in these acts through coercion, force and/or deception, he or she is still a trafficking victim. Sex trafficking can be found in: 

  • Adult bookstores 
  • Bars/strip clubs 
  • Brothels
  • Escort services 
  • Exotic dancing establishments
  • Hotels and truck stops
  • Massage parlors 
  • Modeling studios 
  • Pornography production houses
  • Phone sex operations
  • Sex tourism
  • Street prostitution

In Canada, sex trafficking is the most common form of human trafficking. Victims predominantly include Canadian-born women and children (including Aboriginal women) as well as foreign nationals, mainly from Eastern Europe and Asia. 

Labour Trafficking

Although most people think of human trafficking in relation to sexual exploitation, labour trafficking, also called forced labour, is an equally heinous form of this crime. Any adult who is forced or coerced - through physical or psychological means - to work is a victim of human trafficking. Whether or not the individual initially consented to the job or employment opportunity becomes irrelevant once coercion, deception, and force is used to keep an individual working. 

Victims of labour trafficking have been found in almost every job setting or industry imaginable including:

  • Agriculture
  • Childrearing
  • Construction and landscaping
  • Elder care and medical  facilities
  • Factories
  • Food processing
  • Hotels
  • Housekeeping
  • Meat-packing
  • Private homes
  • Restaurants

Canada is a destination country for men and women subjected to labour trafficking. Victims mainly include foreign workers (from Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa) who enter the country legally but are then subjected to forced labour. 

Debt Bondage

Debt bondage, or bonded labour, is an arrangement whereby a person is forced to pay off a loan with direct labour in place of money and is a very common ploy used to control victims of human trafficking. Often this debt is rigged so that the worker never makes enough to pay it off. Some workers even inherit their ancestors' debt. Children may also be sold into bondage to settle their parents' or other family members' debt. 

Child Soldiers

A child soldier is anyone under the age of 18 who has been recruited or used in hostilities by either state armed forces or non-state armed groups and can play a wide variety of roles; fighter, porter, cook, cleaner, courier, spy, and human shield or suicide bomber, as well as for sexual purposes. While not every child (particularly over the age of 15) participating in conflicts is necessarily a victim of human trafficking, many are recruited unlawfully, even abducted from their homes, abused and exploited for the purposes of armed conflict.   

Forced Marriages

Not to be confused with 'arranged marriages' which require the consent of the future husband and wife, forced marriages are arranged without the consent of all parties involved and often include elements of coercion, deception and exploitation during the arrangement of the marriage as well as in the marriage itself. Forced marriages can qualify as a form of human trafficking when an individual is forced into marriage and repeatedly raped (sex trafficking) or treated like a slave or servant by her husband and his family (labour trafficking).  

Street Begging

Street begging is a form of human trafficking when an individual, usually a child, is coerced or forced (sometimes bought or abducted) to beg or pick pockets on the street, the earnings of which are then handed over to their keeper. Many children are subject to extreme abuse, including deliberate mutilation (gouged out eye, amputated limb) to make them more pitied and, therefore, better 'earners'.

Organ Harvesting

Although not as widespread as sex or labour trafficking, the trafficking of persons for the purpose of removing their organs or other body parts is mentioned in the United Nations' Trafficking in Persons Protocol. Victims may be lured by false promises and are sometimes left for dead or even killed. Generally, these harvested organs move from underdeveloped countries to developing or developed nations.  

Child Victims of Human Trafficking

Children are especially vulnerable to human trafficking in all of its forms. The use of children in the commercial sex trade is illegal in Canada and in most countries around the world and, therefore, any child (under the age of 18) in the sex trade is considered a victim of human trafficking; the use of force or coercion is irrelevant.

Children are legally able to engage in certain forms of work. However, forms of slavery or slavery-like work practices continue to exist and are a form of human trafficking, regardless of where this work is taking place and regardless of the relationship between the child and his or her traffickers (family or strangers).

50% of those trafficked today are children (under the age of 18). Begging, forced marriages and unlawful soldier recruitment are examples of human trafficking where children make up the majority of victims.


Myths About Human Trafficking

  1. Human trafficking must always include transport, especially over international borders.
    Although the word 'trafficking' implies the movement of 'goods', this need not be the case for human trafficking. While transportation is often involved, an individual can be a victim of trafficking without ever leaving his/her home town. More important to the definition is the use of force, coercion or deception for the purposes of exploitation and to the benefit (both financial and otherwise) of the perpetrator.   
  2. Human trafficking only applies to immigrants or foreign nationals from other countries
    Victims of human trafficking need never cross international borders and many are trafficked in their own countries. In Canada, many of the women and children trafficked into the sex trade are Canadian-born and often from Aboriginal communities.
  3. Human trafficking is the same as human smuggling
    Human smuggling and human trafficking are two very different activities. A person who is smuggled receives help in getting into a country illegally, usually in exchange for money. When the final destination is reached the business relationship ends and the smuggler and individual part company. A victim of human trafficking has no control over his/her life and is continually exploited for personal or commercial gain. The 'relationship' between a victim and his/her trafficker is ongoing.   
  4. Sex trafficking is the only form of human trafficking
    While trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is usually the most thought of form of human trafficking, there are many other ways people are exploited (link back to 'What is HT page'). The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that over 20 million people are victims of labour trafficking in the world today.  
  5. Victims of human trafficking will always ask for help and will self-identify as a victim of a crime
    Victims of human trafficking often do not immediately seek help or self-identify as victims of a crime due to a variety of factors, including lack of trust, self-blame, or specific instructions by the traffickers regarding how to behave when talking to law enforcement or social services. It is important not to assume that because someone does not identify as a victim of this crime, that he or she is not one.   
  6. Human trafficking doesn't happen in... Canada... Ontario... Sarnia & Lambton County
    Human trafficking happens in almost every country in the world today! In Canada, 45 convictions of human trafficking have been secured to date although there are many more victims out there than perpetrators brought to justice. The first (in 2008) and the largest (in 2012) convictions of human trafficking occurred in Ontario. Although no specific numbers exist for Sarnia-Lambton, this horrible crime is happening locally, particularly given our status as a border community. Service providers who work with vulnerable and marginalized populations, along with police and justice services, can attest to this.

Recognizing Signs Of Human Trafficking

Most trafficking victims will not readily volunteer information about their status because of fear and the abuse they have suffered at the hands of their trafficker. They may also be reluctant to come forward due to feelings of despair and discouragement, and a sense that there are no viable options to escape their situation. Even if pressed, they may not identify themselves as someone held in bondage for fear of retribution to themselves or family members. However, there are indicators that often point to a person held in a slavery condition.

Who are Victims of Human Trafficking?

Although those who come from impoverished or abusive situations may be more vulnerable to the methods of traffickers, anyone can be a victim of human trafficking! Women and children make up the majority of victims throughout the world. In Canada, Aboriginal women in particular are highly susceptible to this crime. 

Health Characteristics of a Trafficked Person

Trafficked individuals are treated as disposable possessions without much attention given to their mental or physical health. Accordingly, some of the health problems that may be evident in a victim include:

  • Malnutrition, dehydration, or poor personal hygiene 
  • Sexually transmitted diseases 
  • Signs of rape or sexual abuse 
  • Bruising, broken bones, or other signs of untreated medical problems 
  • Critical illnesses including diabetes, cancer or heart disease 
  • Post-traumatic stress or psychological disorders 

Other Indicators of Trafficking Victims

In addition to some of the obvious physical and mental indicators of trafficking, there are other signs that an individual is being controlled by someone else. Some red flags that might suggest a person is a victim of human trafficking are if she/he:

  • Does not hold own identity or travel documents 
  • Suffers from verbal or psychological abuse designed to intimidate, degrade and frighten 
  • Has little or no money in pocket (as trafficker or pimp controls all the money) 
  • Is always in the presence of someone else and is unfamiliar with the area in which they live
  • Lives at the same place she/he works or is driven between living quarters and 'work' by a guard
  • Is kept under surveillance when taken to a doctor, hospital or clinic for treatment; trafficker may act as an interpreter
  • Works in a commercial establishment that has heavy security, barred windows, locked doors, isolated location and electronic surveillance
  • Is prohibited from leaving the work site which may look like a guarded compound from the outside

Trafficking victims live a life marked by abuse, betrayal of their basic human rights, and control under their trafficker. The following indicators in and of themselves may not be enough to meet the legal standard for human trafficking, but they indicate that a victim is controlled by someone else and, accordingly, the situation should be further investigated.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Is the person free to leave the work site? 
  • Is the person physically, sexually or psychologically abused? 
  • Does the person have a passport or valid I.D. card and is he/she in possession of such documents? 
  • What are the pay and conditions of employment? 
  • Does the person live at home or at/near the work site? 
  • How did the individual arrive at this destination (if the suspected victim is a foreign national)? 
  • Has the person or a family member of this person been threatened? 
  • Does the person fear that something bad will happen to him or her, or to a family member, if he/she leaves the job? 

What is Canada Doing?

There are a number of initiatives Canada's government has undertaken in recent years to combat human trafficking and address the needs of its victims both within the country and internationally.


Canada was among the first countries to ratify the United Nations' Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially  Women and Children.


Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) announced the creation of a temporary resident permit (TRP) for victims of human trafficking and made provisions to support victims with medical and counseling needs to help begin their recovery.


Amendments were made to the Immigrant and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) that increased the length of stay for the TRP from 120 to 180 days. The amendments also allow victims of human trafficking to apply for resident and work permits (and the application fees are waived).

The Private Member's Motion (M-153, put forth by MP Joy Smith) that called for Parliament to condemn human trafficking and immediately adopt a strategy to combat it worldwide was unanimously passed by the House of Commons.


A national hotline for human trafficking was launched through a partnership between the federal government and Crime Stoppers (1-800-222-8487).

Bill C-268 amended the Criminal Code to include a minimum punishment of imprisonment for a term of five years for offences involving trafficking of persons under the age of eighteen years.


The RCMP conducted its first Human Trafficking Threat Assessment to determine the extent of the problem in Canada.

The federal government joined the RCMP to launch the Crime Stoppers 'Blue Blindfold' campaign to bring awareness of the issue to the national stage.


Bill C-310 amended the Criminal Code by: 1. Adding trafficking in persons to the list of offences that if committed outside of Canada by a Canadian resident can still be prosecuted in this country and 2. Enhancing the definition of exploitation in the trafficking in persons offence to provide clearer examples such as threats, coercion, deception, abuse of power, trust or authority.

The Government of Canada also launched its National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking to better guide and coordinate initiatives across the country.

The Work of MP Joy Smith

Joy Smith is the Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul in Winnipeg, Manitoba and is widely recognized as one of Canada's leading anti-trafficking activists. Along with the successful passing of her Private Member's Motion (M-153) to condemn human trafficking, both amendments to Canada's Criminal Code (Bill C-268 and Bill C-310) were Private Member's Bills she put forth. She also was successful in advocating for the government to create a national plan to combat human trafficking, which was launched in 2012. 

For more on Joy's work, please visit her website

How to Take Action!

It is every person's individual responsibility to think about how their actions may contribute to human trafficking. Laws and policies, partnerships and activism will continue to be critical to this struggle, but it will also be the day-to-day decisions of individual men and women to reject exploitation that will bring an end to modern slavery (U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2013, p. 27).

  • Become informed; raise awareness in your community
  • Student research for school projects
  • Speak out against gender inequality; be a person against human trafficking
  • Contact a local anti-trafficking group
  • Let your dollar talk; buy fair trade products wherever possible
  • Lobby your Members of Parliament to continue their work to combat trafficking of persons
  • Report suspected cases to authorities
  • Support organizations that help victims