Human trafficking and The Games

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Some say evidence of Olympic-related trafficking shows a spike in vulnerable women being brought to Vancouver during the Games. But local sex trade activists disagree.  Image: Salvation Army.

In the weeks and months preceding the 2010 Winter Olympics and throughout the Games, Vancouver's billboards, airspace, and newspapers have been filled not only with ads for corporate sponsors, beers, and athletic brands, but with images of a darker sort: women beaten and bloodied, young girls looking woefully into the camera lens.

The Salvation Army's The Truth Isn't Sexy campaign features stories and visual portrayals of young women who are trafficked for sex within Canada. Although the campaign is nationwide, it, along with others such as Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity's Buying Sex is Not a Sport, have particularly targeted Vancouver, claiming that the city has seen an increase in the forced movement of persons for sex in the lead up to the 2010 Games.

Human trafficking can refer to people being forcibly moved across borders or within a single country, often for the purpose of labour or sex. The International Labour Organization estimates that worldwide 2.4 million people are victims of human trafficking, 1.3 million of whom are involved in some sort of sexual exploitation. Over 80 per cent of all victims are women and children.

According to Benjamin Perrin, assistant professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia, "human trafficking is a relatively new phenomenon in Canada." In 2004, the RCMP estimated that 600-800 people annually are trafficked to Canada for sexual exploitation, with another 1,500-2,000 brought through the country en route to the U.S.
Organizations concerned with Olympic-related trafficking point to increased demand for paid sex at sporting events. Michelle Miller, founder of "Not a Sport," explains, "Any time that you have a mega event... trafficking goes up because the demand goes up. Any time you have men traveling away from their social networks [to a place] where they enjoy a degree of safety and anonymity, they're more likely to pay for sex."

"We've done research on other things like the Super Bowl, where sex clubs said their numbers quadrupled," continues Miller. In Vancouver, "even pimps themselves are admitting that demand will rise," she says.

A 2007 report by the Future Group, a Canadian-based non-governmental organization focused on human trafficking and the child sex trade, states: "Researchers found a 95 per cent increase in the number of human trafficking victims identified by the Greek Ministry of Public Safety in 2004. In other words, the number of known human trafficking victims almost doubled in the year of the Athens Olympics." The report concludes, "While numerous factors come into play, a certain correlation between the Olympics and an increase in human trafficking cannot be discounted."

But Susan Davis, development coordinator and member of the West Coast Cooperative of Sex Industry Professionals, says that an increased demand for sex doesn't mean a rise in human trafficking. "We contacted every other host city, and this fear-mongering never materializes. It's an absolute lie, and [those] numbers have absolutely no basis."

Davis is not alone. According to a 2009 paper by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women: "data from previous sporting events indicates that an increase of trafficking in persons into forced prostitution does not occur." While initial figures estimated that up to 40,000 additional women would work in the sex industry during Germany's 2006 World Cup, a report conducted by the UN body the International Organization for Migration concluded, "an increase in human trafficking during and after the World Cup did not occur."

According to Sgt. Duncan Pound of the B.C. RCMP Border Integrity Program, assertions of increased sex trafficking surrounding the Vancouver Games have largely been "speculation. We have to go with the hard evidence and empirical evidence, [and that] is that there has been no documented increase during the Olympic Games... We don't have any confirmation in terms of solid cases."

Pound also makes a clear distinction between human trafficking and sex work. "There's been an erosion between some of the distinctions between human trafficking and sex trade and victimization...While there may be an increase in prostitution, there hasn't been any link between human trafficking and prostitution.

"As far as I know we haven't had a spike in investigations in human trafficking or human smuggling that we can link to the 2010 Olympics in any way."

Still, concerned organizations are insistent that an increase has occurred. A statement released just a week before the Games by the Citizens Summit Against Sex Slavery, a self-described "diverse coalition of aboriginal, feminist, ethnic and religious organizations, parliamentarians and academics," says the group "[has] helped young women trafficked for sex slavery during the Olympics to escape" and "turned over to authorities evidence of women offered anonymously for ‘sale' online in the lead up to the Games."

When pressed by to expand on these examples, Summit collaborator Trisha Baptie said: "we can't actually release the circumstances or organizations because it's their anonymity that keeps them safe." Baptie could also not provide details on how trafficked women are found by Summit organizations, "again... because we don't want people to be prepared if they're going to be caught." On a personal note, however, Baptie says: "I know of dozens of women and youth who are being brought into Vancouver from the Maritimes, Toronto and Northern Ontario for sex slavery during the Olympics. "

REED's Miller is also reluctant to offer specific figures. "We're not interested in talking about the number of women, we're interested in talking about the number of men who are buying sex."

At the heart of the debate between those who have launched anti-sex trafficking campaigns and those who state that claims of increases are "overblown" is a different understanding of whether selling sex is "work" or "exploitation," and how the industry should be handled legally. While Davis' Co-op and several other sex worker empowerment organizations are calling for further decriminalization or legalization of sex work within Canada, the REED camp advocates for the Swedish model of law, in which the buyers of sex can be prosecuted but those who sell their bodies are decriminalized. "[We] support the decriminalization of prostituted women but the criminalization of those who exploit them," says Miller.

Since being instituted into law in 1999, the Swedish model has been adopted by Norway and Iceland, and heavily lauded by international human rights experts and organizations. According to Perrin, "[the] approach that Sweden is taking is gathering interest across the world, and I think you'll see an increase in discussion about this in Vancouver in the coming years."

Yet while women are not criminally liable under the law, some claim that it poses a threat to the safety and dignity of those who work in the sex industry by pushing it further underground. In the short film "A Swedish sex worker on the criminalization of clients," Pye Jacobson, a Swedish sex worker and activist, explains that as a result of the law women solicit in dark alleys or in clients' cars rather than negotiating in public spaces, often taking unsafe jobs because the process is rushed. She also claims that the law makes it more difficult for "Johns" to contact the police about trafficked women, for fear of being criminally charged.

Jacobson further explains that this model assumes that all prostitution is a form of violence against women. When "no prostitution is prostitution out of free will, it means that everybody is a victim," she says. "If you scream and shout that you're not a victim... you're not representative. And the fact of the matter is that most people working in the sex industry choose it for whatever reason.

Jacobson continues. "The stereotype of sex work is even worse, and suddenly... the whole population of Sweden is so aware that ‘all women in sex work are victims.' The more stereotyped you are, the more dehumanized you are."

But Miller says that this notion of "choice" is a skewed one. "I would say there's a very few number of women who choose to be in prostitution," she says. "What is our notion of choice...and how are we defining the word consent? Consent can be mediated by poverty and access and control. The majority of women that we know don't choose it."

Miller says that women like Jacobson and Davis are "at the top of the hierarchy" and do not represent most of those involved in the sex industry. "I think [Davis] is speaking from the very top of the hierarchy, the majority of women don't choose to be involved in prostitution. We're asking for solidarity from the bottom up, for women who find themselves there based on circumstances or because they are forced."

Reiterates Perrin: "if [they choose to sell sex], good for them! That's not who I'm talking about here... A 14-year-old girl is lured over Facebook to come to Vancouver for sex and abused, that's who we're focusing on.

"Their so-called right to sell their bodies is not a way to excuse the abuse of others. That's a false debate."

Both Perrin and Miller are disappointed with the political and security response to sex trafficking during the Olympics. "Part of the reason we haven't seen such a strong response is because of this false dichotomy between pro-prostitution lobbyists and those who are trying to protect vulnerable women and children," says Perrin. "That's a real shame."

Sgt. Pound says that the RCMP has continued its work as usual throughout the Olympics, taking all concerns into account. None of the Border Integrity Program's officers have been sidelined to work on security. "We're focusing on border integrity issues, and one of the primary focuses [is] human trafficking. All of our resources are in place. We're prepared to deal with anything.

"It's difficult to predict what will happen, and really we have to assess things as the Games are ongoing and at [their] conclusion," says Pound. "We're just going to take it one case at a time."

Mara Kardas-Nelson is's editorial intern.

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