Victims of Trafficking in Persons: Perspectives from the Canadian Community Sector

3. Findings (cont’d)

3.2 Services, Gaps and Barriers

Once they had identified the most urgent needs of trafficking victims, frontline workers were invited to describe the services provided by their agencies and the gaps in and barriers to access services. Agencies are focused on areas such as poverty, needs of immigrants, refugees and women victims of different types of abuse and violence. They get referrals from settlement services, prison advocates, women themselves, third world solidarity groups, women’s organizations and Aboriginal leaders. Within these mandates and their daily service provision, they address the most salient needs of victims of trafficking.

Varied levels of services exist for most of the needs identified. Respondents also noted gaps and barriers to the provision of services to address the particular problems of trafficking victims.

3.2.1 Outreach, Intervention and Protection


Outreach was reported as an important activity undertaken to educate and help trafficking victims reach safety. Workers seek to reach potential victims on the streets or in massage parlours, bars or strip clubs, within ethnic communities or in churches.

Trafficking victims are sometimes reached through websites, and some come to the attention of agencies through medical practitioners who treat the women for STDs and addictions. Respondents reported that their agencies frequently work in collaboration with other organizations in order to help possible trafficking victims. In Montréal, for example, groups turned to allies such as: No One is Illegal, an organization for clients in undocumented situations; Dollard-Cormier, a drug treatment centre for youth; Cactus, a street-level organization working with injection drug users; and the Montréal Department of Public Health. Agencies also network with ethnic communities and grassroots advocates.

In Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal, some activists, as well as small community groups, were at times involved in “rescue” operations, in which they would physically intervene to help a woman caught up in a trafficking situation (for example, an LCP or other domestic worker) to leave the site of the exploitation:

We provide the so-called “rescue operations” at the centre. They call us up and say, “I really want to leave.” They need to immediately leave the employer because they can no longer stand the abuse. We immediately support them and go get them. Without any questions, we just go pick them up.

Work has also been done in detention facilities or prisons where women are held, both around Vancouver itself, in the interior of British Columbia and on Vancouver Island. In this context, agencies do outreach and advocacy work related to immigration, settlement services, problems with prison and criminal justice authorities, or they take in women upon their release from jail.

It was noted that workers were overloaded and under-resourced and that there wasn’t enough support for outreach activities. It was also suggested that peers should be hired to do outreach work in some ethnic communities such as the Chinese, Thai, and East-European communities, where trafficking sometimes occurs within the community.

Several of the respondents interviewed identified public education and advocacy against gender, race and ethnic discrimination as one of the most important activities of their organizations. Several groups reported that their adherence to feminist principles or to the tenets of First Nations’ culture was a key element in their ability to reach out, to engage and to maintain contact with trafficking victims in vulnerable situations. Respondents felt that these alternative practice frameworks were under-valued by government officials and funding bodies, thereby limiting their ability to provide the services they see as both necessary and in demand.

Respondents also felt that the public lacks understanding of both what trafficking is and of its extent in their communities. Media coverage was considered incomplete, difficult to understand and presented from a conservative point of view. Public education campaigns addressing the links between systemic gender and racial prejudices and trafficking in persons were suggested as viable responses. It was argued that survivors or "experiential workers" should be hired to run campaigns available in a diversity of languages.

As part of this educational strategy, the public should be given tools to help victims. Programs such as, an online system to report actual or potential sexual exploitation of children on the internet, should be publicized.


There were several examples of police operations uncovering trafficking activities. The evaluations of these operations were mixed. For a time in Toronto, Metro Police and a sex workers’ organization collaborated in a series of investigations and busts of local strip clubs suspected of trafficking. Each city also had examples of isolated police raids that uncovered suspected trafficking victims.

The results of police investigations and interventions in cases of trafficking, especially where organized crime was involved, have highlighted gaps within the system and pointed to a need for education for law enforcement personnel. For example, there have been instances during these kinds of operations in which trafficking victims were charged with prostitution-related offences. Respondents viewed this kind of outcome as problematic and highlighted the need to build better relationships between victims’ organizations and the police. In other cases, it was reported that undocumented women were directly turned over to the Canada Border Service Agency and subsequently deported.

Respondents also pointed to insufficient or inappropriate law enforcement activities as a barrier. Respondents questioned the implementation of the Immigrant and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA, 2001) and the lack of enforcement related to the existing tools such as the Canadian Labour Code and the Criminal Code.

Trafficking victims involved in the sex trade have the most difficult conditions: they are often jailed; their children are taken away from them; and they are denied other rights. In cases where trafficked victims are detained, their imprisonment constitutes an obstacle to the provision of services they need. It is noted that the way in which detention centres function is not conducive to community advocacy and support for the women. As one worker pointed out, “prisons are not in the business of helping women; they are in the business of managing people.”

Criminalization of sex workers was also considered as interfering with prevention efforts. Given that the police use parlour activities as proof of prostitution and collect evidence to support accusations of prostitution against workers, agency workers’ efforts to leave preventative material such as condoms and lubricants on site is inhibited. Criminalization also makes it difficult for agencies to identify, reach out to and gain the trust of sex workers. Their fear of arrest or deportation can lead them to avoid accessing necessary services, a scenario captured well in the following quotation:

The first question is that you must understand the culture of the gangs, of the sex trade work. They don’t have status; they even don’t know if the Canadian law will protect them. They just came here. They didn’t intend to stay here forever. They just come here to get money and they eventually need to leave the country. They don’t know if the government is willing to help these kinds of victims.

Lack of implementation in the regulation of sex clubs, as well as lack of trafficking-related training and education of government officials are seen as gaps in the area of law enforcement.

Protection Services

There were a few examples of respondents providing temporary protection services to women by offering them a place to stay. These respondents reported feeling uneasy about having to take on that role. They felt ill-equipped to do so but felt it was necessary since the woman had no alternative. In most situations in which women felt endangered, the women were referred to domestic violence shelters. In some cases, refugee shelters actually sent their clients to another city in Canada or even to the US in order to ensure their safety:

So one day, we really started to fear for her safety when one of our volunteer was raking leaves outside in front of the house when a man, middle aged, white Canadian man, stopped and asked for this person. Fortunately, it was just a volunteer so she didn’t know and she went to tell me somebody is looking for this person. So I went to answer the person and to see how he looks and asked why he was looking for her but he left. She wasn’t secure anymore. So we arranged for her to go to another city and to be welcomed by another organization.

Respondents viewed the lack of protection policies and programs for trafficking victims as a primary barrier to effective service provision for trafficking victims. Service providers, themselves, also wanted protection in specific situations. In Calgary and Montréal, for example, some service providers had received threats related to their work on trafficking in persons. Workers feared exposing victims and themselves or colleagues to retaliation by traffickers.

We, too, have had threats. The women, too, have threats. All kind of threats, like on your own person. That’s why I hope you will respect the confidentiality, and why we can’t mention the names of the people, of the victims nor the groups either. We want to make it good but we don’t want to have a string of bad things happening to those who helped out with their heart.

Respondents identified many steps that need to be taken to provide better protection for trafficking victims: a pro-active immigration policy that includes violence against women; the full application of the UN Trafficking Protocol; and providing immigration status to trafficking victims. A “protected person status” has been suggested in this connection. However, respondents were not in favour of tying immigration status to a willingness to participate in the prosecution of traffickers.

Most of the agencies which meet with international trafficking victims have immigrant or refugee settlement services as their primary mandate. As such, they are used to helping individuals deal with immigration procedures. Many of the non-immigrant-serving groups interviewed rely on referrals to specialised organizations or on pro bono collaboration with lawyers to complete applications. Given the implications of an unfavourable immigration decision, most groups prefer to rely on specialists.

The most common procedures are refugee claims, humanitarian and compassionate applications for permanent residence, permanent residency applications for those in the LCP, or other temporary visas. If deportation is imminent, groups will sometimes offer emergency assistance through legal intervention, political lobbying, media work and activism.

There was recently a woman who was deported … She was one of the women in our group. … The government’s whole mentality, their bosses told them what to do and they do it, that’s it. They don’t care about us. There was an amazing demonstration. … They didn’t want it. She was deported.

Access to legal representation, including legal aid, was lacking for the groups aiming to help victims to negotiate with the immigration system. Some form of residency status for internationally-trafficked persons was frequently identified as a gap.

3.2.2 Housing and Income

Housing Services

Respondents viewed housing services as closely related to protection services. When encountering trafficking victims in crisis situations and in need of immediate shelter, service providers turn to a number of resources. Domestic violence or refugee shelters are the most common resources used, but in cases where victims do not seem to fit into either of these two categories, frontline workers reported seeking spaces in homeless shelters. In Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal, activist organizations sometimes arrange for victims to stay in their members’ homes.

The limitations of domestic violence, refugee and homeless shelters are related to their specific mandates, which are geared to specific populations and which inhibit the provision of services to meet the needs of trafficking victims, such as protection, immigration accompaniment or specialised counselling and health services. Another issue reported in Winnipeg and Vancouver was the unwillingness of shelters to accept people under the influence of drugs and alcohol. This represents a barrier to helping a person who may disappear into the city if he or she is turned down for help:

I had a woman come into my office. She was obviously very high, obviously hadn’t slept for a few days. She was falling asleep while sitting up. She was very young. She was hardly dressed. I was trying to find shelter for her but nobody wanted to take her as long as she was inebriated. The best I could offer her was, there was a church called First United Church down here. They’ll let you sleep on one of the pews. They’re pretty supportive. But that was about all I could offer her. She got frustrated fairly quick because most of these women haven’t really had any support, don’t trust any of these systems in place. And so she took off before I could actually finish. I gave her clothes, gave her food. She grabbed all that she could before she left. She ran out in a huff.

Women-only facilities were deemed necessary as protection against traffickers. When they are available, there are not enough places, especially when trafficking victims are not part of the shelters’ specific priorities.

For the most part, residential facilities available for trafficking victims are for detoxification, and even these are reported to have waiting lists that are so long that many individuals have lost the impetus to get treatment by the time their name comes up. Also, these facilities are rarely available on short notice. This lack of detoxification beds was reported as especially severe in Vancouver and Winnipeg for Aboriginal women, whom are considered as being internally trafficked. Several organizations working with women in the sex trade highlighted the need for residential facilities for transitioning out of forced prostitution.

You need that residential facility, somewhere when you are starting off and where you can get ESL. I’m looking up with other agencies possibilities, whoever it is, and each person is an individual so you can never treat everybody in generally. They can be in that house, having free courses and meals in the day, and then start looking for refugee status, and lawyer procedures. Because if you don’t feel safe somewhere, you can’t move forward.

There is apparently a project in the planning stages in Toronto, but to date this kind of service has been lacking.


Frontline workers shared their experiences in trying to secure welfare payments for trafficking victims. Obtaining welfare is possible for those who have made a refugee claim or who have permanent status in Canada. Those who are undocumented or on temporary visas cannot generally access provincial welfare. Footnote 14 Also, for Canadian victims of trafficking, jurisdictional issues and lack of identification may block access to welfare.

For those who are ineligible for an income security program, workers said that they attempted to seek funds through alternative channels: charitable donations, and referring victims to churches, other religious organizations, and food and clothing banks. For victims housed in shelters, the organizations are often able to provide them with some pocket money. Groups have also organized fundraising events to help victims. When all else fails, several organizations reported “passing the hat” among their staff and/or volunteers.

We make a point to go where current policies are and we push those to the limit and then we go to charity services that we know. The third option is to raise money from our own pockets.

Several labour rights-oriented organizations were willing to accompany victims working legally in the country through the complex complaint process at the Labour Board. However, these organizations lack necessary resources to meet all the demands for accompaniment services.

3.2.3 Health

With the exception of one agency in Winnipeg that had nurses on staff, none of the agencies interviewed were health care providers. There were, however, examples of health education taking place in each city. In Vancouver and Winnipeg, women’s groups, drop-in centres and sexual assault centres undertook health prevention; in Toronto and Montréal, there were refugee services, sex workers’ and domestic workers’ organizations undertaking this type of outreach and education. Two examples of health outreach strategies were pointed out by respondents: (1) collaboration between a sex worker’s association and the Peel Board of Health in order to gain access to strip clubs and massage parlours; and (2) the use of peer educators to gain access to sex trade workplaces. Respondents indicated that these two health outreach strategies work well with trafficked women.

While many organizations referred trafficked women to community health clinics that were reportedly more open to patients without health cards, service providers were unsure about the extent to which it worked. One Montréal organization had arranged its own weekly health clinic in collaboration with Médecins du Monde, offering free frontline medical services regardless of immigration status. Another group found doctors within ethnic communities willing to volunteer their services as the need arose. Several organizations in each city, especially the sexual assault centres, reported accompanying victims to health appointments in order to defend their rights and to explain procedures.

Service gaps related to health included an insufficient number of workers for health outreach and education, a lack of residential services for recovery, a lack of detox beds, and difficulty in accessing public services for victims without immigration status or proper identification.

Counselling services were offered by many of the organizations interviewed, often around specific issues such as sexual assault, refugee experiences, domestic work experiences, or addictions. It was often because trafficking victims sought help related to one of these issues that the trafficking itself was discovered by frontline workers.

The counsellors interviewed reported not being able to meet the demand for their services. Knowledge and skills were required to develop trust with the women and to bring them out of their isolation. The need for training related to the specific dynamics and implications of trafficking in persons was raised by several participants:

Yes. The difficulty with the specific area of trafficking is that there isn’t a specific training course on how to help victims of trafficking. I think it would be useful because there are so many programs in BC that are working specifically on violence against women. It would go quite well. It is a unique area of provision of services and response.

3.2.4 Physical, Psychological and Social Barriers

Respondents noted that marginalization and isolation, both of which are inherent to trafficking in persons, are serious barriers to helping victims. The secret nature of trafficking prevents women from disclosing information. Restriction of victim movement and communication with outside parties also prevents many women from accessing services. Overcoming this kind of sequestration and isolation requires, in addition to police intervention in appropriate circumstances, a long-term investment in intervention.

Frontline workers noted that closely circumscribed living and working conditions, as well as constant accompaniment by the trafficker, were formidable barriers:

Once the trafficked people arrive in their destination, the most important thing for traffickers is that victims be isolated from their own community and even from each other. Most of the time, what happens is that their papers are confiscated and then they are usually herded and placed in dormitory-type arrangements where they are not free to come and go, except to do their work. So, let’s say, if it is to work in a club, they are lap dancing, etc, they will be herded to their place of rest after they are through working. They will not necessarily be allowed to leave the premises on their own and then they’re herded back to do their work.

Respondents noted that psychological and emotional manipulation of victims was a powerful means of control exerted by traffickers, regardless of the type of trafficking. Among the psychological barriers mentioned were lack of trust, low self-worth and deception. Fear of violence, arrest, and for victims of international trafficking, deportation, prevented victims from coming forward and obtaining the services that they required. The climate of fear established by the traffickers can be quite extreme, as revealed in this interview excerpt:

They are very afraid to come forward. … They are afraid of being killed. Also these people who have brought them to this country, they will go see their family in their home country. There are all kinds of blackmailing. Everything is used to keep these people into this operation, this situation. They are afraid of being traced; those people who brought them can trace them if it is done through that. … And this is for both genders, both girls and boys, children, juveniles and adults also.

It was reported that in some cases, there have been years of programming and brainwashing, whereby women are convinced never to trust the police or any outsiders.

Language was mentioned as a barrier that greatly affected international trafficking victims’ ability to take advantage of services and other forms of help. Groups were sometimes able to register victims in government language courses but, more often than not, they would turn to language courses offered by other community groups or by religious associations, given that trafficking victims are likely to have difficult schedules or not to have papers. The inability to secure spots in language courses, especially for those with less flexible schedules, and a lack of identification, immigration papers, or income, was reported by respondents as problematic.

In each of the sites studied, community organizations were able to provide services in languages other than English or French (e.g., Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, Tagalong, Romanian, Thai and Hindi). No single organization can represent all the languages of the victims who seek help; however, several of them cooperate with other groups, volunteers or public services for access to translators. Translation of their services for outreach or educational material is seen as an important but difficult task.

Along with attempts to translate their own services, several groups reported trying to provide translation services for victims’ court appearances, legal and health appointments or contacts with various government agencies. Finding translators in crisis situations has proven difficult. Several groups suggested the necessity of an on-call, 24–hour, government-funded bank of interpreters:

There are some victim services provided by the provincial and federal agencies in BC. But because people who need services arrive anytime of the day or night, because the CIC may shut a house anytime of the day or night, they might not understand what’s going on because they might not have bodies to interpret, because they might be deported any time… You really need workers who can understand that this is not a 9 to 5 kind of situation.

Significant cultural barriers to service provision, including difficulty on the part of some women to tell authorities or service providers what has happened to them and what sort of help they require, was raised as a major issue.

For respondents from several community based organizations, greater support is needed for those working on an equality-seeking model, (eg., anti-racism, women’s liberation, and anti-poverty). Furthermore, respondents indicated that within governmental agencies and NGOs alike, anti-racism and anti-oppression models need to be developed and the gender lens need to be applied to the policies.

3.2.5 Service Providers

Many of the groups interviewed were aware of recent federal efforts to address trafficking, including the Interdepartmental Working Group on Trafficking in Persons (IWGTIP) Footnote 15. Some had participated in roundtable discussions on trafficking issues organized by the federal government as well as by the British Columbia government. It was expressed by many of these groups that more regular communication with the Working Group would be useful.

In addition, most of the groups interviewed were engaged in some way in the policy-making or the legislative process, be it directly or through their membership in coalitions or federations. They participated in the parliamentary commissions on migration issues and consultations with specific government departments on policy. They provided feedback, research reports and policy briefs, often directly related to trafficking, but also on the related issues of violence against Aboriginal women, the LCP, exotic dancer visas, the refugee determination process, and the overall immigration program. Although this work was time-consuming and usually unpaid, groups saw it as important to address the structural elements behind the specific cases they encountered at the grassroots level.

Respondents expressed a need to share more information across government and non-government and federal and provincial agencies and to develop collaborative partnerships among all the agencies involved, including child welfare services with regard to the protection of child victims.

Respondents noted that the biggest obstacle to service provision at the level of community and grassroots agencies is financial. Agencies have too few resources to offer a broad range of services. There are no funds for service development, hiring regular staff and “experiential workers”, and offering staff development programs. Funding to deal with a sudden influx of victims is non-existent. Moreover, there is a lack of office space, problems related to hours of operation, and lack of adequate interpreting and translation services.

Beyond the community level, respondents believed that there is a lack of national standards on health, welfare, training and credentials. This absence creates important barriers to developing well-coordinated, effective services, regardless of immigration status. It was indicated that the 1996 repeal of the Canada Assistance Program only served to fragment the delivery of social welfare across the country. Footnote 16 They also believed that there are systemic problems which impede transition housing, and safe and secure long-term housing. Respondents are frustrated by the fact that provincial and federal governments seem to be disputing whose responsibility it should be to fund services to trafficking victims.