Our Analysis of the 2021 US State Dept trafficking in persons report

The U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report was published in June 2021, highlighting the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on anti-trafficking efforts and focuses on building future and current efforts through an equity-building lens. 

The Pandemic

The report broke down human trafficking in the context of a global pandemic, in addition to the definitions commonly used in understanding human trafficking. It notes the exacerbation of new and old vulnerabilities caused by the economic and social distress generated by the pandemic – we recognize that this will need more research to confirm the exact effects and determine next steps for the future. The report also discusses the increase in forms of online sexual exploitation which has also been noted by Aura Freedom and partners in the beginning of the pandemic and connecting this issue to the recirculation of sensationalized and fabricated trafficking-related stories and mis/disinformation on social media platforms.

Due to governments across the world diverting resources and attention towards the pandemic, resulting in cuts to social supports and anti-trafficking efforts, systemic gaps and inequalities were exacerbated and impossible to ignore. The TIP Report notes these issues and calls for sustained collaboration among key anti-trafficking actors in the name of equity such as governments, civil society organizations, private sector, and survivor leaders. This is good, but it must also be noted that addressing inequities without grassroots inclusion will lead to the dog chasing its tail in vain.

Resilience

Interestingly, the report included a special focus on how anti-trafficking stakeholders adapted during the pandemic, including the resilience of survivor-led and survivor-informed innovations. This is indeed a positive aspect to highlight, however it could lead to an overdependence on the resilience of survivors and grassroots groups without lending proper support to ensure this resilience is sustainable. 

Lived Experience

A section in the report gave space for experts and those with lived experience to highlight special topics. This is a great practice in equity by showcasing other expertise and lived experience, and contributes to the growing dialogue of progress within the anti-trafficking sector. This is explored further in a separate section below.

Use of Survivor Experiences and Photographs

A stark contrast from the 2020 TIP Report is the inclusion of a disclaimer on the sharing of survivor experiences and pictures. The re-exploitation and re-traumatization of survivors through the use of sensationalized imagery in the anti-trafficking sphere has been well-noted – this practice of including survivors in the TIP report while staying mindful of their rights is a step towards progress that we hope many in the anti-trafficking field would appreciate and/or adopt into their practices.

Topics of Special Interest

This section gave space to discuss special topics ranging from navigating the unique complexities in familial trafficking to unifying trauma-informed practices, voices of survivor leadership, and the negative impacts of human trafficking misinformation. The importance of this section is clear – from centering survivor experiences to dispelling dangerous beliefs and misinformation campaigns, this section stands out and should be a permanent feature going forward.

In the article, The Role of the Financial Sector, Canada’s Project PROTECT and FINTRAC was highlighted. FINTRAC has been successful in disclosing suspicious transactions of money laundering to law enforcement to aid in their cases. Unfortunately, there is not a survivor equity lens in this analysis as it fails to mention that survivors of human trafficking lack support in rebuilding their credit scores after their traffickers use their financial information to take out credit cards and loans in their names.

A grassroots analysis would have benefited this report, to note the organizing efforts of grassroots women’s organizations who are currently advocating to expand the federal strategy to end gender-based violence to include financial and economic abuse. Economic abuse has been a barrier for survivors in leaving, accessing supports, and in their pursuit of a higher quality of life. Canada and its banks have failed to recognize this issue with regards to human trafficking, nor has it taken any steps to enacting policies to support survivors of economic abuse and human trafficking who have had their identities stolen and credits ruined.

Canada’s Ranking

Canada has received a Tier 1 ranking for fully meeting the minimum standards in its efforts towards elimination of trafficking despite not providing comprehensive data on investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. We do note that the recommendations to Canada provided in the TIP Report do align with some of our own calls to actions in Aura Freedom’s Relentless Resilience report, specifically increasing trauma-informed specialized services and shelter for all survivors.

Additionally, the TIP Report highlights the fact that Canada’s human trafficking definitions in the Criminal Code and Immigration and Refugee Protection Act diverge from international standards and there is inconsistent application (and understanding) of different manifestations of exploitation. This discrepancy has been noted by advocates and community organizations for a quite some time. We would like to point out that this inconsistency does not align with the Canadian federal strategy and pillar of Empowerment. Empowerment cannot happen without clearly defining and addressing the effects and root causes of exploitation.

For context, the 5 pillars as outlined by the Canadian National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking 2019-2024 are: Empowerment, Prevention, Protection, Prosecution, and Partnerships.

In terms of Prevention, the report and past reports consistently show a lack of appropriate funding for grassroots prevention efforts rooted in equity-building and community empowerment. Unfortunately, prevention initiatives that focus on education from a grassroots perspective were sorely missing within Canada’s anti-trafficking efforts. The TIP report mentions the emergency funding of $100 million to combat gender-based violence during the pandemic, including $20 million allocated to Indigenous-led organizations and assumes that some of this funding has reached survivors of human trafficking – at this current moment, we cannot be sure of this statement but are hopeful that survivors were able to be supported.

The TIP Report notes that there were no reports in Canada of victims being criminalized for criminal acts traffickers compelled them to commit – this is not the case. Our colleagues have anecdotal evidence of the failure to recognize survivors of human trafficking within the criminal justice system, leading to their criminalization and/or deportation. This is an issue due to the fact that Canada’s data is mainly based on law enforcement activity that fails to illustrate the actual gravity of the issue of human trafficking and the many different lived experiences. 

Labour Trafficking and Migrant Workers

A prioritized recommendation for Canada was to “increase proactive identification of victims, particularly male victims and forced labour victims, through screening among vulnerable populations and proactive outreach and assistance to migrant workers.” Canada’s current efforts to date with regards to addressing human trafficking have overwhelmingly focused on sexual exploitation, not forced labour. This is in contrast to a long history of migrant workers visiting and working in Canada to ensure its economic progress – Canada has historically failed to provide proper supports for migrant workers, thus leaving them more susceptible to human trafficking and exploitation. 

During the pandemic, the report notes that the Canadian government continued funding to migrant work support centers, initiatives, and networks. Including allocating a small fund of $4.71 million in emergency funding to support migrant workers during the pandemic and starting an initiative that allowed migrant workers in an abusive employment situation to apply for an open work permit – a great step forward in allowing migrant workers to change employers while still keeping their status. Indeed, as noted in our Relentless Resilience report, the legal status of migrant workers is dependent on employers, which makes for the perfect conditions for exploitation and violence. This is mainly due to a lack of awareness of their rights as a migrant and employee, paired with systemic issues like racism, xenophobia and gender inequality. While other smaller changes were created to support migrant workers stranded in Canada during the pandemic, such as extending the time for foreign nationals to renew their temporary immigration status, there is no data as to how many people used these initiatives or supports. Given that Canada does not currently have a federal outreach strategy to connect with migrant workers in a culturally-sensitive and supportive manner, it may be safe to conclude that this is a barrier to access of services and may translate into less people taking advantage of these supports and initiatives. 

Migrant workers in Canada’s biggest barrier to support is their varied immigration statuses – whether they have the Temporary Foreign Work Permit or are undocumented. A legal avenue to becoming citizens or at least to permanent residence has been underlined by grassroots activists and survivors as a key component to the recovery journey – however this is still lacking in Canada.

The Trafficking of Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Cases of state-sponsored human trafficking was discussed, but left out Canada’s genocidal policies against Indigenous Peoples. Particularly, the TIP Report failed to fully devote attention to historical and ongoing practices of child apprehension of Indigenous children within the child welfare system. While the TIP Report has consistently noted for the past few years that youth in the child welfare system are at high risk of exploitation, it fails to note this in an intersectional manner and the deliberate actions of past and present Canadian governments. It is a fact that must be analyzed through a systemic approach, especially since 52% of children in foster care are Indigenous Indigenous, but account for only 7.7% of Canada’s child population.

For centuries, Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit peoples have been murdered and have gone missing with little or no support from the Canadian government. In 2015, the Government of Canada finally announced a National Inquiry into the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit peoples (MMIWGT2S). In the end, the National Inquiry concluded that the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people in Canada amounts to genocide. The connection between MMIWGT2S and human trafficking has been noted by numerous Indigenous women’s organizations – from pipeline man camps and their direct connection to the sexual exploitation of Indigenous women, to the many women and girls from northern Inuit communities who are lured to Southern cities under the guise of a better life. Indeed, the Native Women’s Association of Canada released a Fact Sheet in 2018 showing that Indigenous women and girls make up only 4% of the population, but 50% of human trafficking survivors. The 2021 TIP report briefly mentions instances where the system fails to properly support survivors in their healing and justice journeys, but fails to include a present and historical systemic analysis on the trafficking of Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit peoples in Canada.

Our final grade for Canada would be: Work in Progress

A Note on Resilience

The concept of resilience was discussed in the report, even if briefly, showcasing the power of survivor leaders to organize for their communities in response to the pandemic. We will always applaud survivors and their resilience – resilience built in community, support, and radical love. We hope that governments and private stakeholders who are quick to celebrate resilience understand their role in supporting – not depending upon – this resilience. Resilience without support, without community, cannot be sustainable, nor can it be Relentless.

A Note on Conscious Writing 

We would like to point out that when referring to specific ethnic and racialized communities, the first letter must be capitalized – for example, Black and Indigenous women and girls. The consistent use of an uncapitalized word does not fall in line with equity-building initiatives and the impact may be marginalizing to said communities.

 

Talija Končar is the Research and Policy Analyst at Aura Freedom