How poverty pimps the poor: Study focuses on the human trafficking of Inuit women and children

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IqaluitStopSensational headlines appeared across the country February 3 about Inuit children being sold into prostitution, but the author of the study that prompted the stories say the media distorted the essence of her work. Instead, says researcher Helen Roos, her study was a warning to Canadians that dire poverty in any community leaves people vulnerable to human trafficking.

Roos’ study, “Service and Capacity Review for Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking in Nunavut,” was actually published last November. It brings together the stories of survivors with information from social workers and frontline workers from the North and South to paint a chilling portrait of vulnerability borne out of colonization, poverty and a lack of adequate social support.

“The unfortunate thing with this type of issue is that not many people really know what it is and it really speaks to the heart of what is happening in so many communities that you almost need that shock factor to wake people up,” said Roos in an interview with the Nation.

While Roos wasn’t pleased with the salacious coverage of the study in some media outlets, which focused on anecdotes about the trafficking of women and children from Iqualuit while ignoring the bigger picture, she is still glad that this story is getting out.

Those anecdotes, often second-hand, told of some families being approached to sell their children outside of hospitals and some administrative loopholes in the tradition of “custom adoption” in the North.

The practice of custom adoption creates a potential for trafficking because it allows for an Elder in the community to sign over a child while skipping any form of background check into the adoptive parents. But Roos said this was highlighted as a potential red flag, and was not the focus of her work.

“When that original article [in the National Post] came out it was like what are you doing, you are just honing in on some very sensational, salacious aspects of the entire issue of human trafficking across Canada. It does not matter if you are Inuit, First Nations or some girl from Kanata. What is behind it is either poverty or an individual who is looking for love, attachment, and a sense of community they don’t have,” said Roos.

sexualtraffickingThe report, prepared for the federal Justice department, spells out how women and girls are lured into prostitution, often through dating websites and social media.

There are multiple accounts of how predators on dating websites like Plenty of Fish target poor aboriginal women from the north.

At the same time, social media isn’t always the hook. Roos explained that trafficking could also happen through a friend, through someone the victim knows or through a seemingly legitimate organization or business promising a job in the South. Iqaluit is prime hunting ground because of its poor living conditions.

“You are going to become vulnerable if you don’t have a pot to piss in, you don’t have a house, you don’t have food and you are desperate,” Roos emphasized. “This is international. With the collapse of the global economy, we see this everywhere. There is a huge upswing of trafficking or exploitation because people are desperate to put food on their table and they can easily be lured by someone with a fake promise of employment and opportunity only to be suckered into a situation that they could not know.”

Having lived in Iqaluit for five years, Roos sees firsthand the impact of high food costs on low-income families. She says it’s hard to fathom how families on welfare can afford $80 boxes of diapers or $14 for two litres of milk.

Further condemning the Inuit to poverty is a government that is out of touch with the realities of the North. Roos says federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq is “pushing back” against awareness-raising efforts that identify the federal food subsidy program for actually helping distort northern food prices.

“It’s ridiculous but this is the kind of pressure that is constantly put on the vulnerable,” said Roos. “[Aglukkaq] said that they shouldn’t worry about it because they subsist mainly on country food. But, the caribou herds have moved far away from that area and so country food isn’t as accessible. And people don’t even necessarily have the bullets to hunt because they can’t afford them.”

It’s a chilling portrait of a people living in desperation that renders them perfect targets for exploitation.

“All we are saying is that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that where there is poverty they may exploit their own children for money, food or booze, whatever the demand is. Then there is also the question of how much survival sex is happening just so someone can put food in their belly or food on a plate for their children or a roof over their heads. This is the fundamental crux and it is not just for the Inuit, it is for First Nations as well,” said Roos.

Putting numbers on human trafficking is difficult because the RCMP has only been collecting statistics on the practice since 2007. At that, under new RCMP legislation, the only statistics available to the public are from cases going before the courts. Roos listed about 167 cases at the time of her study.

But the problem is far larger. Roos works with a number of anti-trafficking organizations, including the Ottawa Coalition to End Human Trafficking, which supply her with additional information.

“For those of us who work on the frontlines and with victims’ services in every community and in Ottawa, we have about three new victims a week. So, if you factor that into 52 weeks a year, you end up with a lot more,” said Roos.

However, these numbers only represent the victims who manage to escape and seek help, and many do not, she cautioned.

To address the problem Roos said a priority is to educate those who work with the most vulnerable, such as social workers, nurses, shelter workers and teachers.

“Where there are stories of, ‘Oh, that person is a prostitute,’ the scope needs to be expanded so that they can see whether or not someone else is pulling the strings of stress, coercion, deception or if someone is forcing someone else to do something,” said Roos. “The majority of exploitation in Canada is sexual exploitation. We know that forced labour is happening but we’ve only skimmed the tip of that iceberg. We have to get a handle on sexual exploitation first.”

Roos’ report recommends that organizations combine efforts to support victims. New legislation is also required to tighten adoption loopholes and to provide professionals for vulnerable communities to help both victims and perpetrators, many of whom began as victims themselves.

For many First Nation and Inuit communities, however, Roos recognizes that these efforts come with a high price tag and are only part of the solution to a problem whose roots are deeply entwined with poverty and inequality.

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