Recently, I completed training in child trafficking and a workshop on trafficked persons. I was astounded to realise that there is so much about this issue that escapes our attention simply because we are unaware of what to look for. It is my hope that in opening this discussion about this despicable practice, we will all as fellow human beings start to identify those who need our protection.
A few myths that surround trafficking include the idea that it always involves movement of a person out of their home to some faraway place, (another country for example), by a stranger for nefarious purposes. However, this is simply not true. The definition of trafficking generally in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “the act of buying or selling usually illegal goods”. In regard to human trafficking, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception with the aim of exploiting them for profit”.
Based on these definitions, it is clear that “harbouring” people would include keeping someone in their home while allowing them to be exploited for profit. This is the very important element of trafficking which often goes undetected because most of us are not aware of what to look for. This means that vulnerable people, including children, are being kept as hostages and exploited in front of us without anyone coming to their aid. A huge part of why this happens is because the means of identifying the crime are not well publicized. Evidence of this in the Jamaican context is seen in articles like this one on the Jamaica Information Service website in which the acknowledgement is given that people do not know what to look for but ironically, the article does not shed any light on signs to watch out for. However, here are some dangerous myths about trafficking that we need to dismantle so that we can identify those who need protection.
Myth #1: Only predatory strangers engage in trafficking of persons. The idea that traffickers are evil strangers who abduct random children and women (mostly) for the purposes of sexual exploitation is a huge and dangerous falsehood. The reality is that many people are trafficked by relatives both in their homes and in other parts of the country. This is made clear on the Ministry of Justice’s website in Jamaica where it is stated that “family members practice this crime in its abuse of a member, where the family member may be sent to another parish for a better life, but instead are subject to domestic household assistance or domestic servitude”. This is expanded on the Government of Canada’s website which explicitly lists current and former partners, friends, co-workers and bosses as people who have been known to traffic persons known to them. This does not mean that strangers are not coerced or deceived into trafficking situations, it simply makes the point that not all trafficking victims are strangers.
In July of 2021, the media house LOOP reported that members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force are alleged to have participated in sex trafficking. It is also known that members of the clergy and other “authority figures” have engaged in this exploitative practice often preying on the trust of victims’ relatives. In Canada, the government acknowledges that trafficking tended to occur in dense urban areas like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax but, it has also been found in Vancouver. This is likely because in densely populated areas, it is harder to pick up on “unusual” activities as most people are facing a faster pace of life and simply do not notice things that do not directly impact them.
Myth #2: Smuggling of humans is the same as trafficking them so the victims are consenting participants. This is not true. Remember that trafficking does not have to involve movement of a person at all! Trafficking, by its nature, does not involve consent. It is entirely possible for someone who has agreed to be smuggled to then later be trafficked. This is why the Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Suppression and Punishment) 2007 act of Jamaica makes it clear in Section 4 that “it shall not be a defense for a person who commits the offence of trafficking in persons that the offence was committed with the victim’s consent”.
Myth #3: Only foreigners are trafficked so our own children and citizens are safe. This is a big myth that is only benefitting the traffickers. Many citizens of our own countries are vulnerable to trafficking as traffickers exist in all sectors of society. This myth prevails because the television representation of trafficking usually involves showing the kidnapping or illegal movement of people across borders. However, as expressed before, there is no movement required for trafficking to occur and therefore, anyone can be vulnerable to trafficking even within our own homes and communities.
Myth #4: Only women and girls are susceptible to being trafficked. This is a harmful stereotype as it ignores forced labour and sexual exploitation of all gender identities and expressions can be trafficked. Since we are not aware of what to look for, it is understandable that this may be happening right in front of us without us identifying it.
Myth #5: Trafficking must involve the use of violence. It depends on what is meant by “violence”. Physical violence is a possibility but is not the only type of “violence” or abuse meted out to victims of trafficking for the purposes of control. Emotional abuse and manipulation are commonly used to control victims. If the person is being trafficked by an authority figure, (like members of the clergy, teachers, parents and other relatives), this involves an abuse of power over the victim whose trust is exploited to keep them bonded to their trafficker. If the person has been trafficked across international borders, the threat of having them deported is also used to discourage them from seeking help from law enforcement.
Now that the myths about trafficking have been challenged, it is important to know what to look for. There are some signals that someone is being exploited to which we can pay attention. The two major types of human trafficking are sex trafficking and labour trafficking. There are a few signs that this may be happening.
Labour trafficking signs can include getting a “job offer” that seems “too good to be true”. Advertisements for this can be found in the classified advertisements of many otherwise reputable publications. This is one way of attracting vulnerable people who may be desperate for economic stability. Therefore, when one sees these advertisements, it is important to alert law enforcement so that necessary investigation can be done. If a new job asks that the employee relocate without payment upfront to help them settle and gives few details about what the job entails, it is possible that it is tied to trafficking and is using this as a means to recruit unsuspecting people.
In order to control victims, traffickers will take away their identification cards, passports etc. essentially imprisoning the person. They may also threaten the person in to thinking that their relatives could be harmed if they do not comply with the unreasonable demands of the employer.
If the job requires the person to exist in conditions that are inhumane or work very long hours, this is likely to be a trafficking situation.
Sex trafficking signs can include the victim being controlled and it is not uncommon for the person to be trafficked by a current or former intimate partner. This is made clear in this public education video by the Government of Canada.
Signs to watch for include a new relationship with someone with greater financial means or who is significantly older but controlling. Often, victims are lured in with gifts or money given “for no apparent reason” which leads them to believe that the predatory person loves and values them. However, the relationship often takes a sudden turn for the worse. If the person does not have freedom of movement or is being controlled with their electronic devices, this may be a sign of trafficking.
Sharing images of a sexual nature involving the person without their consent or knowledge is another sign that must be taken seriously. In such a situation, please do not shame or blame the victim! This is not the time to moralize over another person’s reality. People in this situation are at the whim of a person who has weaponized the bonding urge of every human being against the victim.
We all need to be on the lookout for what trafficking actually is. Television and movies do not accurately portray this dangerous underworld because their intention is producing works of fiction for entertainment and not education. Instead, please start having discussions about this topic so that we can all act in the best interest of the wider society and keep each other safe.