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Nika thought her future was bright when she came to Canada from the Philippines as a bride to the owner of a booming taxi business.

She was following in the footsteps of her sister, Nela, who had herself immigrated as a mail-order bride and was living comfortably with her husband and two young children.

But soon after Nika arrived thanks to the sponsorship of her husband Tom, things began to fall apart. For one, she learned she was his fifth wife.

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He beat her, restricted her right to use the phone, stopped sending money to her family and even controlled her diet.

Nika fled to a transition house after a month.

A new study by Simon Fraser University's Jen Marchbank says the scenario is not unique. Mail-order brides coming to Canada have little knowledge of their rights and face exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous husbands.

And the business in Canada is thriving, thanks in part to the Internet.

Many of the problems such women face in Canada come as a result of changes to this country's marriage laws as they relate to immigrants, as Ms. Marchbank details in her report: Mail Order Brides: Causes, Experiences, and Policy Responses in North America.

"Unlike many U.S. states, the industry is unregulated in Canada," says Ms. Marchbank. "In this country, there are no specific rules to control agencies, which work transnationally, and no specific provisions to ensure that brides know their rights."

Recent changes in Canadian marriage law regarding common-law spouses could also have implications.

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"This might aid unscrupulous men in deceiving women into entry to Canada with a promise of marriage - then not being able to leave the man without threat of deportation."

The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act changed the definition of a spouse in 2001 so that certain common-law marriages are recognized under the family section of immigration rules.

Under those rules, a woman can come to Canada as a common-law spouse without being married elsewhere. That, however, puts a women at the mercy of her husband.

Should the relationship fail, she could be deported.

"Before, for anyone to enter Canada, they had to be married overseas prior to coming to Canada and their marriage had to be a marriage that would be recognized under Canadian law," Ms. Marchbank said.

The situation has caught the attention of Canada's Green Party, which has been busy expanding the depth of its platform beyond environmental issues. The Greens are calling for changes to the laws permitting mail order brides.

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Party Leader Elizabeth May says the situation is akin to "human trafficking."

May said women coming from countries outside of western cultures suffer due to their lack of language skills and support systems.

"All the more so in this particular group where women come in, potentially as mail-order brides without any support and are subject to abuse," May said. "We've heard about situations where it's really not a marriage; it's actually sexual exploitation."

Ms. Marchbank said mail-order bride situations are generally only heard about when something goes wrong. They get media coverage when women seek out social work or legal services. The successful ones never make headlines.

There are, however, other reasons why those in mail-order marriages might not come forward.

"The very title 'mail-order bride' (is) pejorative," Ms. Marchbank said. "Why would a couple want to put themselves up and say this is what we did because there are so many stereotypes around this that women are always victims and the men are somehow lacking in something because they couldn't get a Canadian woman to marry them.

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"It has a lot of cultural myth around it and stereotypes around it."

There's no good data on how many mail-order brides there are in Canada, Ms. Marchbank said. Most arrive through the family section of federal immigration policy.

The practice has become an option for third-world women due to the structure of immigration into Canada.

In some cases, mail order marriages are "easier for these women than to meet the education and qualification standards required by Canada's immigration laws," Ms. Marchbank said.

The growth of the business can be traced to the explosion of the Internet in recent years - and the cost-effectiveness of running a website. They're cheap to keep updated and simpler to manage than paper catalogues.

It's estimated there could be as many as 10,000 Internet sites worldwide offering mail-order brides. One such site listed 128 countries.

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"It is a commodification of women," Ms. Marchbank said, "This is about women as a commodity to be purchased. This is to me very much about international inequalities in economics."

But, she adds: "These women are making choices. They are not just victims. Many of these women are making choices about their lives. They may be making very restrictive choices compared to women in the West but they are making choices."

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