Human Trafficking – Tragedy and Hope

“Brian McConaghy of the Ratanak Foundation speaks with a young girl in a brothel district in Cambodia.”

Christian activists are calling for help in the fight to stop the exploitation of the vulnerable. Especially with the Olympics coming soon, concern is high.

He thought he had seen it all. As a firearms expert with the RCMP, Brian McConaghy had investigated the ugliest of murder scenes, including convicted killer Robert William Pickton’s pig farm on the outskirts of Vancouver. But then a police task force asked him to help in a case involving child sex tapes originating from Asia.

“This file changed everything for me,” he says. “I was confronted with seven tiny little girls, and they’re staring back at me through the camera as they’re being raped.”

The task force consulted McConaghy because he operated a small Vancouver-based foundation called Ratanak, which he started to ship medical supplies and provide other help to the postwar victims of Cambodia’s killing fields.

When he saw the tapes, he instantly confirmed that these girls were ethnic Vietnamese and that the crimes were taking place in Cambodia. Within 72 hours he was able, with the help of GPS, to locate the “rape cubicles” where the little girls were being mutilated by a Canadian predator. He has since quit the RCMP to work full time with Ratanak, which has expanded its mandate to work with child exploitation.

“victims of human trafficking have to perform as they are told or risk being beaten; a Nepalese mother holds a photo of her missing daughter who was trafficked”

A global scourge

Human trafficking – the buying and selling of human beings for sexual exploitation or forced labour – takes place in many forms and it happens throughout the world, including Canada. In India, International Justice Mission (IJM) works with victims who have been trafficked for labour as they desperately try to repay debts incurred by their grandparents in the 1920s.

In West Africa, young boys are enslaved on cocoa plantations. In one country, children living in sewers are whisked away to a hospital, cleaned up and their kidneys harvested for wealthy families.

On the streets of Vancouver, young Honduran teenage boys are brought in by a gang to sell drugs. “There’s a debt bondage,” explains Deborah Isaacs, a member of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. The boys are forced to pay back transportation and living expenses. Almost all their money goes to the traffickers.

Throughout Canada’s major cities, young women think they’re coming for nanny or restaurant jobs, only to be enslaved as domestics or prostitutes.

Sophisticated networks move people from city to city, from country to country, from continent to continent. Depending on whose figures you believe, between 12 million and 27 million people are in slavery today, with between 600,000 and 800,000 moving across international borders annually. The RCMP reports that 800 people are trafficked into Canada and 1,500 to 2,200 are moved from Canada to the United States each year. Other agencies say the numbers are several times higher and are growing.

“This is a business that makes money – which is why it’s growing,” says McConaghy. Unlike the drug industry, where a product can only be consumed once, “if you spend $50,000 buying ten human beings, you can work that ‘product’ for years.”

“It’s a big business,” agrees Jamie McIntosh of London, Ontario, executive director of International Justice Mission Canada, which works at prevention, prosecution and aftercare ( Selling people, with profits of more than $30 billion per year, rivals the billion-dollar economies of the illegal arms trade and global drug trafficking. An estimated $120 million to $400 million comes into Canada each year.

A large part of human trafficking has to do with the sex market.

Greed and desperation

“Women used in prostitution wait for customers in Mumbai redlight district. They face routine violence from pimps and customers, a wide range of diseases and adverse health effects.”

Savelia Curniski was at a truck stop in Ukraine about five years ago when she noticed something disturbing. “Girls were being taken into trucks – young girls, 12 or 13.” Until then, Curniski had never heard of human trafficking. But back in Canada, after traveling from Saskatoon to Edmonton to hear renowned Canadian journalist Victor Malarek speak on the subject, “a whole world was revealed.”

Women used in prostitution wait for customers in Mumbai’s redlight district. They face routine violence from pimps and customers, a wide range of diseases and adverse health effects.
Photo courtesy Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department.

By the time she and her friends got back to Saskatoon, they had summoned enough passion and commitment among themselves to begin an organization to help prevent Ukrainian girls from being bought and sold. NASHI, which means “ours” in Ukrainian, provides education and skills development and is currently remodeling an old Soviet-style building into a safe house

Ukrainian orphanages are populated with children whose parents have died or don’t have the resources to care for them. But Curniski found “Nobody cared about the orphans who were leaving the orphanages.” Extreme poverty has made Ukraine an easy place for predators to come in and lure young girls with the promise of jobs, only to sell them and resell them across Europe and into North America.

Greed – for both money and power – feeds the industry on the demand side of trafficking. Desperation – for money and security – feeds the supply side.

But that isn’t the whole picture. In a country like Cambodia, where parents are complicit in selling their own children, the killing fields of the 1970s left a “profound moral vacuum” along with abject poverty, says McConaghy. “If you have been raised in a devastating, traumatic environment where you have no value, then your kids have no value either.”

McConaghy knows of parents who sell their children for food and of a woman who sold her granddaughter “not because she wanted a TV but because she wanted a better TV.”

Like other illegal trades, human trafficking is buried deep underground. It’s hard to get a handle on the scope of the problem, let alone put a face on it. Many Canadians aren’t even aware that it’s happening. But in the past couple of years the issue has finally begun making it onto the radar screens of Canadian Christians. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) presented a report to the government last spring, asking for more action, including tougher penalties for traffickers (see Recommended Resources).

“We’ll keep raising these issues with Parliamentarians and, through our new video clip and blog, with the general population,” says EFC vice-president Don Hutchinson.

The EFC has also started working with the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC). That work, still in its infancy, will include theological reflection, education for churches and advocacy, says Peter Noteboom, the CCC’s justice and peace secretary who staffs the working group.

Olympic awareness

Much of the recent impetus and urgency to address trafficking in Canada stems from the fact that Vancouver will host the 2010 Winter Olympics in February. A report authored by University of British Columbia law professor Benjamin Perrin points out that, every time there is a world sporting event, there’s an increase in trafficking for sexual purposes.

At the Athens Olympics in 2004, for example, there was a 95 percent increase of known trafficking cases.

Rumours abound that planeloads of people are coming in from Asia. “We hear anecdotal stories that there are people being moved in,” says McConaghy, who maintains a role in the watch for telltale signs. “Whether there will be a spike, we don’t know.”

Faith-based groups in the Vancouver area aren’t taking any chances. “There’s always a demand for paid sex” at major sporting events, says Jennifer Singh, executive director of the International Christian Alliance on Prostitution.

The Salvation Army – which has put up warning billboards – and other churches are involved in prevention and education programs to help the public become aware of the potential problem.

Since May, REED (Reject Exploitation, Embrace Dignity), also in Vancouver, has been working on a publicity campaign called Buying Sex Is Not a Sport, distributing pins, postcards and T-shirts and holding public events with speakers who tackle the root causes of trafficking (see Embrace Dignity and Buying Sex Is Not a Sport).

“REED has been journeying with women who have been trafficked,” explains executive director Michelle Miller, “but we’re also asking some of the more difficult questions, like why are they being trafficked and prostituted?”

The pre-Olympic efforts are laudable and effective, says IJM’s McIntosh. “I think more and more Canadians are starting to see what’s going on.” But he hopes that, once the international community has left, the fight against trafficking will continue. “The reality is we need to gear up for a long battle” just as William Wilberforce fought for more than 20 years in the British Parliament to abolish slavery.

On the home front

Finding people who have been trafficked into Canada and who are willing to talk is difficult. One young woman who was trafficked here a dozen years ago from Eastern Europe and managed to escape agreed to talk to Faith Today but quickly changed her mind. Although she has told her story many times, recent publicity has perhaps made her uncomfortable. For now, she says, she doesn’t want to jeopardize her work with police and other victims as well as her own personal security.

Vancouver massage parlours and escort services are frequently supplied with women from China and Korea.

They come to Canada thinking they are getting legitimate jobs. Toronto nightclubs hire Eastern European women as dancers who are then forced into prostitution. But in Prairie cities like Edmonton, Winnipeg and Saskatoon, as well as in Vancouver, there’s another group that is victimized by sex trafficking.

“Here we’ve got local supply,” states Saskatoon’s Curniski. “Local supply” refers to the aboriginal girls and women who are enticed to come to the city from northern reserves – or come willingly looking for work – and are quickly prostituted by family members or acquaintances.

“It’s like a pandemic,” says Miller. “Aboriginal women are so overrepresented in street prostitution.” The average age of a girl entering prostitution is between 14 and 16, she says. “For aboriginal girls, it’s more like 12.”

In Manitoba, dozens of aboriginal women – most of them young – have gone missing or have been found murdered. Two teenage girls whose bodies were found in roadside ditches this past summer are thought to be victims of trafficking.

International efforts

A couple of years ago, Commissioner Christine MacMillan, who formerly headed The Salvation Army in Canada and now works in New York, was speaking at a conference in Australia where she had breakfast with the EFC’s Geoff Tunnicliffe, who is currently serving as international director of the World Evangelical Alliance.

Tunnicliffe had a question for her: would she be the WEA’s spokesperson for human trafficking? If she wasn’t sure of her answer, it became clear shortly after when, at a WEA assembly in Thailand, a young man rose to the floor to ask what the organization was planning to do about human trafficking. “It was like a clarion call,” MacMillan remembers.

But she felt the issue was bigger and more complex than could be dealt with by one spokesperson. Earlier this year the WEA created an international task force to respond to the problem. For MacMillan, to fight trafficking meshes with the WEA’s mission, which “wants churches to seek transformation, holiness and justice.”

What about rescue?

Rescuing the victims of trafficking is a difficult and dangerous business. Most organizations leave that work up to the professionals or partner with experts.

McIntosh remembers the sickening feeling he got as he was led into an alley on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and was offered three little girls to be raped for $100 each. “I don’t think I’ve been as close to evil as that place,” he says. “This was the very front line of hell. I just wanted to whisk these girls away.”

He couldn’t do that but he was able to make sure the girls were left unharmed. “Thankfully our team of investigators has invested in scores of young children,” he adds. IJM is one of the few organizations that is directly involved in rescuing victims and bringing perpetrators to justice. In La Paz, Bolivia, for example, IJM’s investigative work has made a difference. “We’ve more than doubled the rate of convictions for traffickers and assailants,” McIntosh says.

McConaghy describes a Christian children’s club in the middle of a neighbourhood of brothels where kids as young as four or five play and do crafts during the day “then put on their dresses and lipstick at night” to be sold. When they come back to the club the next day, “some are too sore to sit down. Some have blood on their clothing.” Still, because of the risk and because of local police corruption, Ratanak doesn’t involve itself in rescuing unless circumstances allow.

Curniski has a colleague, a private investigator, who was involved in rescuing a young Ukrainian woman from a “normal suburban house” in Italy where she was found with chains around her neck and just enough mobility to move from the bed to the toilet and bathtub. She was taken back to Ukraine to be cared for. But even if they are rescued, “rehabilitation of these girls is really, really difficult,” Curniski comments.

“The traumatization of people who have been trafficked is so horrendous,” adds MacMillan. “It’s one thing to be rescued. It’s another thing to go out and live your remaining life.”

“The Church,” she says, “has to look at trafficking not as a rescue mission but as a systemic issue in our world. It’s about poverty, about gender, about the need for gender equality.”

The Church’s role

What business does the church have in the seamy underworld of trafficking, a world that McIntosh describes as the “hideous underbelly of humanity”? People often ask, he notes, where God is in the face of such evil. But the real question “is not where God is but where are our brothers and sisters? Where are God’s people?”

In the story of the Good Shepherd, he points out, Jesus goes after the one lamb that is in danger. The children and adults caught in slavery are to him “trapped in the thickets of injustices.”

For Curniski, a member of the Orthodox Church in America, the answer is simple. “As a Christian I can live my own quiet little life. But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think I’ve been put on this earth to pay power bills.” In Sunday liturgies “We pray for those who haven’t got anybody to pray for them. We pray for those who are oppressed. We also have to start, as Christians, doing more action. Not only the words; it has to be the deeds.”

MacMillan’s hope is that with education and encouragement the 420 million Christians represented through the World Evangelical Alliance will shine a light on the evil of trafficking. “What do you do with the darkness? You reveal it.”

What about the seven little girls who haunted McConaghy after he watched their sexual assault? Their Canadian perpetrator, Donald Bakker, was jailed. But for McConaghy, justice didn’t conclude with a prison sentence.

The Ratanak Foundation is funding the rehabilitation of the girls who are now in a Christian foster home. In September, McConaghy had an emotional first meeting with them in Cambodia. “I expected to minister to them,” he says. “To my total shock they started ministering to me, praying for me and praying for the Ratanak Foundation.”

The girls, now young teens, are strong Christians, active in their churches and role models to other girls.

“Talk about ‘more than we can ask or imagine’!” For McConaghy, their lives are proof that God is more powerful than evil.

Debra Fieguth of Kingston, Ontario, is a contributing writer at Faith Today and a former member of a joint Anglican-Catholic human trafficking committee.


Published in: on December 13, 2009 at 7:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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