Thousands of women are being coerced into joining a thriving Canadian sex trade that almost never results in any criminal charges, the Mounties say.
While there is ample anecdotal evidence that human trafficking is a rampant problem in this country, "the extent of human trafficking and the number of victims in Canada is still virtually unknown," according to a new RCMP assessment.
The "Human Trafficking in Canada" report zeroes in on police cases that highlight a flourishing and clandestine trade in sexual services - from the Asian massage parlours operating in B.C.'s Lower Mainland to the Eastern European escort agencies based in Toronto and Montreal. Runaway Canadian teens are also part of the equation, as some have been forced to move from city to city after first being groomed by pimps.
Many women are shipped in and out of Canada by transnational prostitution rings, according to the police report. Despite new laws, there are only a couple of dozen active prosecutions, and even fewer human-trafficking convictions on the books.
This trade is said to be as lucrative as it is exploitive. One convicted pimp, for example, was found to be living off the avails of a Mississauga woman who earned him $200,000 a year. Some prostitutes have been ordered to hand over $500 to $1,000 a day - minimum.
The unclassified RCMP report was completed in March. It was circulated Monday by the federal government and billed as "Canada's first human-trafficking threat assessment."
The report arrives as Ottawa struggles with the fallout from the arrival of a Sri Lankan ship that brought hundreds of migrants to Canada this past summer.
While the Mounties take pains to point out that human smuggling and human trafficking are two distinct problems, they also point out they can be related.
For example, when Chinese networks in the 1990s smuggled boatloads of migrants into Canada, many of the passengers had paid so-called snakeheads $50,000 apiece and "agreed to repay the debt through anticipated employment after they arrived," police said.
Such debts can force people into virtual servitude, police say. Smugglers also use threats of violence and other ploys to their advantage.
For example, foreign women are often lured to Canada with promises of legitimate jobs.
After being made to work in brothels, they are often terrified to quit because they fear "their employers would disclose to their families that they were prostituting in Canada," the RCMP report said.
Victims rarely have any compelling reason to come forward. Citing an Interpol statistic, the RCMP report found that "less than one half of one per cent of victims ever agree to co-operate with police and enter a courtroom to testify against their traffickers."
Yet the financial incentives remain huge. A handful of pimps have been recently convicted of trafficking in humans. But they have typically been sent to jail for two years or less, even after being caught pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars per prostitute.
There is ample evidence that smugglers ship people to Canada to fuel the sex trade. There can be other motivations, but they are often harder to discern.
"For now, a human trafficking charge for labour exploitation under the criminal law remains to be seen," the RCMP report said.