The Condemned Girls of India, Part II

Is India’s Human Trafficking Problem Becoming Canada’s Problem?

Remember when Canada’s Immigration Minister Sean Fraser held an emergency press conference and stated how some of the individuals caught up in the “bogus admissions scandal” had secured admission into Canada through our student visa program, but had no intention of studying and were actually involved in organized crime? Well, as specific as the “organized crime” label can be, it can also be just as vague with all the things that could be considered to be organized crime.  However, there had been other, troubling, mainstream reports about the challenges plaguing some international students prior to the Immigration Minister’s remarks.  Those stories highlighted how international students were being “sexually exploited” (a softer sounding synonym for human trafficked and sex trafficked) and exploited for cheap labour (a softer sounding synonym for labour trafficking) for many years before we entered the 2020s, specifically international students from India.  It was enough information for better-informed listeners to understand what was being said.

One of those troubling reports was delivered by CBC’s Natasha Fatah who interviewed an executive director from Elspeth Heyworth Centre for Women and they spoke about how some 17- and 18-year-old girls who were coming to Canada on study or work permits were ultimately getting sex trafficked against their will.  As well, most of the international students arriving out of India are girls, and most of these girls are first-time travellers who grew up somewhat protected and sheltered—likely eager to make friends in Canada and even enter relationships.  This is the vulnerability that human traffickers aim to exploit.

The way it tends to go is that these pimps are good at spotting vulnerable girls, often because these girls have few friends and do not tend to be outgoing in group settings.  Over time they will continue to collect information about these girls, eventually inviting them to go on a date.  On the date, the pimp might buy the girl gifts and flaunt some cash, along with using lovey-dovey language to make that connection between them stronger—they will do this until the girl is comfortable to share her vulnerabilities.  The goal is often to become intimate, so that she exchanges explicit photos and videos with him, perhaps going on to record explicit videos of their intimacies together.  And just like that, the pimp has finally got what he was after the whole entire time–leverage.

There are two leading scenarios that play out when it comes time for the pimp to sex traffic the girl.  The guy, who was seen as the girl’s knight in shining armour, changes his tone and traps the girl—blackmailing her with threats to share the photos and videos with her family.  Or the pimp may try introducing the girl to the idea of having an open relationship and encourage her to have an intimate encounter with someone he knows, perhaps saying that person might even pay them.

There are many different approaches that pimps might take to sex traffic the girl, but they all revolve around these two approaches.  If the pimp chooses the latter and if the girl decides that she no longer feels comfortable with the terms of their relationship and indicates that she wants to be monogamous with him, this is usually when the pimp reverts to the former and begins to use blackmail to exert control and sex traffic her.  Sometimes the pimps might even resort to making threats to kill her or they may  physically assault her if she still refuses.

Another strategy pimps might use includes using other girls who are already being sex trafficked to approach girls who have been identified as being vulnerable.  These victims are essentially forced to pitch the idea of intimate encounters as being financially lucrative, not mentioning that the pimp will take most, if not all, the money, and eventually they may convince the girls to “try it out”.  Almost always, the “trial” will end up filmed or the pimp will find a way to gain leverage on the girl and he will use it to sex traffic them.

Non-profits that are working with vulnerable international students and sex trafficked survivors report that these international students are often sex trafficked over messaging apps like WhatsApp, but there have also been reports of “massage parlours” advertising services from international students in the Greater Toronto Area and Brampton, which seem to be the hub of exploitation.  Most shocking of all is that non-profits also report that it is not uncommon for health clinics that provide abortive services in these areas to service 20 girls every month, most believed to be international students working in sex work.  Although all of this seems to indicate that there is a crisis affecting a significant number of international students from India, one Toronto-based lawyer said that the problem is considered taboo by the South Asian communities which these girls would belong to, causing a lot of shame and embarrassment that their communities prefer not to be attached to.

The Encumbering Reality of International Students that get Sex Trafficked

Nobody knows exactly how many international students are being affected by sex trafficking because very few victims feel comfortable enough to seek out support as the costs of doing so are likely more than they can bear.  This might come down to the fact that the South Asian community, and Indian families in general, are often culturally conservative, with conservative values.  This might have also play a role as to why some students that were sex trafficked chose to take their own lives.  Perhaps it was the result of being threatened with their families finding out about what they have been involved in, even though it was something that was forced upon them.   But these are not the questions people ask.  Instead, the leading question onlookers will often ask is “Why did they not seek out help,” setting aside the combined power of culture and stigma that might tell someone that living after those actions makes them undesirable and less than.

Despite how Canada is one of the few countries in the world that does immigration the right way, the perception of the student visa program and how it can get weaponized by ill-intentioned criminals is a challenge that is beyond Immigration Canada’s grasp.   While our society cares about their wellbeing and we know that being victimized will not affect their ability to study in Canada or to get added as a new thread to our Canadian fabric, no matter how many times an international student might be told that they should go to the police and report such victimization, the power of fear often overwhelms all else.

One possible solution to this problem might be for post-secondary institutions to ensure that they have a designated office that supports victimized international students, and it would probably require office personnel to operate with the understanding of “attorney-client privilege”.   So if an international student shares their experience with being victimized, and perhaps even still ongoing, stating that they are unprepared to go to the police is something that office would need to respect.  Just because the student might not be prepared to go to the police after their first visit to the office, another one or two visits could change that, and staff could help empower these students to feel comfortable enough to be willing to report when they know they have people supporting them.  But the most crucial component may be meeting these students where they are at, then building them back up, eventually helping them relearn to trust.   All of this will help them deal with their trauma and become better functioning adults.

If there is one thing that we should all take from The Condemned Girls of India series, it is that all of the individuals that have fallen prey to human traffickers would look like regular people if we did something along the lines of a police lineup and tried to identify which individuals were sex trafficking survivors.  The other realization that would likely come out of a lineup situation would be that these sex trafficking survivors carry invisible scars on them that nobody can uncover.  Not unless they were befriended and eventually decide to open up about their life experiences.  Most of these survivors might never go on to share their life story, not because they do not want to rid themselves of the burden that they have been forced to carry, but for fear others might look down upon and judge them.  It is precisely for this reason we must never forget that people are products of their environments and the sum of their experiences.  Instead of joining sides with people that look down upon others, we should remind ourselves to look up at those who might know only what it feels like to have people looking down on them.

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