NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Victims of human trafficking will form a first-of-its-kind “brains trust” to advise policymakers in Canada’s Ontario province how to combat the crime, authorities said on Thursday.
The initiative comes after human trafficking survivors voiced concerns about their exclusion from the mainstream debate on how to prevent modern-day slavery.
Human trafficking is the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise worth an estimated $150 billion a year, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), with nearly 21 million people victims of forced labor and trafficking.
Statistics Canada recorded 396 police-reported victims of human trafficking between 2009 and 2014 but experts fear the number is much higher with the crime under-reported.
Jennifer Richardson, who heads Ontario’s anti-trafficking coordination office and was herself a victim of sex trafficking, said the measure signaled the provincial government’s desire to consider human trafficking victims as “experts.”
“Their knowledge isn’t really stuff you learn in a formal public administration degree,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview, describing the eight-member group that starts later this year as a “brains trust.”
Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, accounted for nearly 70 percent of police-reported cases nationwide in 2015, according to government data.
Authorities said it was the first in Canada to put in place an advisory group composed of former trafficking victims.
Richardson said the concerns of survivors she had spoken with so far ranged from being sidelined from designing programs to fight trafficking to services specifically targeting trafficking victims being too few and far between.
Advocacy groups hailed the measure as a promising way to close the knowledge gap between survivors and authorities.
“The emotional, social, physical, economic needs of victims are complex and persons with lived experience are able to articulate those,” said Cynthia Bland, a survivor who now heads Voice Found, an Ottawa-based anti-sex-trafficking non-profit.
At the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking in Toronto, Ontario, CEO Barbara Gosse said she was “delighted” by the initiative although she hoped more details would be shared soon.
“Survivors themselves often have the best understanding from the inside of where the gaps are in programming and policy,” she said.
But at York University in Toronto, Kamala Kempadoo, a professor who studies human trafficking discourses, sounded a note of caution against the initiative promoting policies that address the symptoms of trafficking but not its causes.
Overfocusing on the crime risked ignoring the role poverty plays in pushing certain groups, such as indigenous people, into the hands of traffickers, she said.
“The concept of human trafficking just narrows down into this idea that there are these criminal gangs who are capturing and kidnapping women and taking them to brothels,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org