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Canada slow to track human trafficking: UBC legal prof

Canada's first statistics on international human trafficking victims were released this week by a UBC legal expert.

Benjamin Perrin's research showed that between May 2006 and 2008, immigration officials flagged 31 foreign individuals as potential victims of human trafficking, four of whom were minors.

Though the numbers are much lower than previous RCMP estimates, Perrin warned the reported cases may only reflect a fraction of the actual number of victims.

"In terms of what we currently know about this problem in Canada, we are very far behind the rest of the world," Perrin said at a conference last week.

He described human trafficking as a form of modern-day slavery, where people are traded and sold for sexual exploitation and forced labour, and held against their will through intimidation and debt-bondage. It is a problem that proliferated in Canada due to inaction, Perrin said.

Part of the initial inaction was slow governmental recognition of the problem. Human trafficking was not a criminal offence in Canada until November 2005, and a system to provide foreign victims with Temporary Resident Permits wasn't setup until May 2006.

Before then, foreign victims without proper visas were deported immediately. Few victims reached out to police due to fear of arrest or deportation. Perrin said this resulted in a "hidden population" that is difficult to reach or uncover, and that human trafficking was "virtually one of the most under-reported crimes in the world."

Victims of the crime are not limited to foreign nationals. Canada's first convicted human trafficker, Imani Nakpamgi, was prosecuted this year in Ontario for trafficking two Canadian teens, one of whom was 13 years old. A 2008 Criminal Intelligence Service Canada report found organized crime gangs actively recruit Canadian women and underage girls for the purposes of sex trade trafficking within the country. While awareness of the problem has increased, Perrin said there was no published data yet on the number of trafficked Canadians.

Progress has been made in the fight against human trafficking. Between May 2006 and September 2008, immigration officials issued 17 Temporary Resident Permits to foreign victims. But Perrin said provincial governments must provide accessible services for victims to recover from their ordeal. While some provinces have made improvements, Perrin said there is no single point of government contact in Ontario and Quebec, creating a major barrier for victims.

British Columbia -- singled out in U.S. State Department reports as a destination and transit point for human trafficking -- made improvements by opening the BC Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons in 2007. But as of yet, there have been no TRPs issued or traffickers prosecuted in BC.

Perrin said local police are investigating several human trafficking cases in the Lower Mainland. One case involves a 19 year-old girl from Surrey who was forced into sex slavery through threats and intimidation. "Her chains of slavery were invisible, but they were just as real as the ones you hear about in Africa and China," Perrin said.

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