Saturday, June 20

Joyce Arthur: Facts and fictions about sex trafficking and Vancouver's 2010 Olympics

With the 2010 Winter Olympic Games only seven months away, there is growing speculation that trafficking in women will increase significantly in Vancouver. A major new report lays these fears to rest by debunking the alleged link between a boom in sex trafficking and large sporting events.

Download: Human Trafficking, Sex Work Safety and the 2010 Games

The 150-page report, Human Trafficking, Sex Work Safety and the 2010 Games, was commissioned by Vancouver's Sex Industry Worker Safety Action Group (SIWSAG). Warning that ill-informed assumptions about 2010 and trafficking may actually endanger sex workers, its recommendations focus on the real concern: that Games-related street closures and the planned security regime risks displacing sex workers into more dangerous and isolated areas. The report also notes community fears that street-level sex workers may be moved in an effort to "clean up the streets".

The report echoes the 2009 Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women report on sex trafficking and the 2010 Olympics, which found that "an increase of trafficking in persons into forced prostitution does not occur around sporting events". Further, the RCMP has stated that there is no evidence to suggest an increase in human trafficking during the Games (Vancouver Sun, January 7).

In the moral crusade against prostitution, trafficking is often wrongly conflated with sex work, a position first argued by the Bush Republicans who refused American funding aid to sex-worker and anti-trafficking organizations that support the decriminalization of sex work. However, trafficking in persons involves the coerced movement of a person into a situation of forced labour, while sex work is the consensual exchange of sexual services for money.

The great majority of sex workers are not trafficked or controlled by "pimps". Most are in business for themselves or work through an agency, and most work indoors, not on the street where it's far more dangerous. Conflating trafficking with sex work is wrong and, worse, can mask the real issues of violence and exploitation that occur within both trafficking and sex work. For example, trafficking victims in other economic sectors, such as construction or farm work, are ignored in the moral panic over sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking is a serious crime, but a wide range of factors makes it difficult to prevent or detect. Global estimates of trafficking victims are often no better than "guesstimates" and can be grossly over-inflated, especially prior to large sporting events. An estimated 40,000 forced prostitutes were expected in Germany for the 2006 World Cup, but they failed to show up. About 20,000 forced prostitutes were anticipated for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, but only 181 trafficked persons were actually reported in Greece for all of 2004.

Sex workers have the same right to travel and migrate as anyone else, but when they are wrongly labeled as trafficking victims, it leads to extreme human rights violations. In many countries-including Canada-this means violent raids of brothels, and the harassment, criminalization, detention, and deportation of sex workers, most of whom are voluntary workers. A huge concern is that misguided enforcement campaigns take place with no input from affected groups, including sex-worker groups, trafficked persons, migrant workers, unions, and relevant labour sectors.

The tendency to focus on international trafficking also means that domestic trafficking is given short shrift. But forced migration from rural areas of Canada to the cities is an enormous problem for aboriginal women and girls, who live with a devastating legacy from colonialism and forced assimilation. According to the Native Women's Association of Canada, many "are driven into domestic trafficking as a result by poverty and conditions on the reserve, sometimes by conditions of abuse".

The RCMP estimates that "600 women and children are trafficked into Canada each year for the purpose of sexual exploitation" (SIWSAG report). Anti-trafficking initiatives are critically important, but grossly inflating the level of trafficking and treating all female sex workers as trafficked victims does nothing to improve their safety-it only exacerbates their stigma and marginalization.

We must involve affected stakeholders and apply an evidence-based approach to prevent trafficking, rather than misrepresent the issues with scare-mongering, sexist rhetoric. Most importantly, our focus must be on ensuring the safety and full human rights of sex workers before, during, and after the 2010 Games.

Joyce Arthur is a cofounder of FIRST, a feminist group advocating for the rights of sex workers and for the decriminalization of prostitution.

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