What Is Human Trafficking?

Following Canadian law and United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, (“Palermo Protocol”), there are three elements to human trafficking: the Act (what is done), the Means (how it is done) and the Purpose (why it is done).

What is Human Trafficking - United Nations table

Human trafficking is an offence under Article 279 of Criminal Code of Canada and Article 118 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Canada’s National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking states that:

Human trafficking involves the recruitment, transportation, harbouring and/ or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person in order to exploit that person, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labour.

Under this definition, one does not need to cross borders to be trafficked; indeed, most human trafficking in Canada is domestic.  Notably, as per the Criminal Code of Canada, persons under 18 years of age cannot consent to exploitation.  Thus, the sexual exploitation of children is always illegal, even if no other coercion or deception is involved.

Human trafficking is not the same as human smuggling.

Human smuggling refers to the illegal transportation of people across borders for financial or other material benefit.  While human smuggling is often undertaken in degrading and dangerous conditions, it involves migrants who have consented to the smuggling. In contrast, trafficked persons have either never consented or, if they initially consented, that consent has been rendered meaningless by the coercive, deceptive or abusive actions of the traffickers.  Smuggling ends with the migrants’ arrival at their destination, whereas trafficking involves the ongoing exploitation of the victim (Sources: United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime and the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking).

Not everyone working in the sex industry has been trafficked.

“Many people believe the buying and selling of sex is always exploitive. But there is an important distinction between a woman who had been trafficked and one who has not.
Trafficking always requires coercion by a third party. For example, a woman in the sex industry might give her earnings to someone else. But it is only trafficking if she was coerced to do so by threats, deception, abuse of power, or any of the other means set out in the protocol” (Source: Canadian Women’s Foundation, “No More” Ending Sex-Trafficking in Canada Report, 2014).

Who is being trafficked?

Internationally and domestically, women and girls comprise the majority of persons who are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.  However, men, boys and gender variant persons are also trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

In terms of domestic human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Canada, youth, 2SLGBTQ+ and Indigenous persons are among the more vulnerable groups. There are both individual and systemic factors that render someone vulnerable to trafficking.

Systemic roots and individual risk factors include:

  • colonialism,
  • intergenerational trauma,
  • racism,
  • patriarchy,
  • rape culture, including the impact of pornography,
  • poverty,
  • homelessness,
  • domestic and intimate partner violence,
  • involvement in the child welfare system,
  • lack of safe public transportation, and
  • the growing use of online technology and social media