Sex Workers Say 'Anti-Trafficking Raids' Are Often a Guise to Target Them

Migrant sex workers who are in the industry by choice say cops and border security conflate sex trafficking with sex work as a way to police migration in Canada.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, Canada
August 4, 2020, 5:17pm
sex worker in heels
Migrant sex workers in Canada say they're being targeted disproportionately by police and border security. Photo by Andreas Rentz (Getty Images)

Wendy, a sex worker in Ontario, was visiting three of her friends who were working out of an apartment when two police officers stormed the premises.

“They immediately asked to speak to the boss,” Wendy said of the encounter, details of which are intentionally vague to protect her identity.

After the women, all migrant sex workers, said they didn’t have a boss, an additional five or six officers showed up—some from the Canadian Border Services Agency. The women were questioned at length before the two undocumented ones were handcuffed and led away, placed in immigration detention, and ultimately deported, Wendy told VICE News through an interpreter. Wendy’s third friend, a migrant with a work visa, wasn’t arrested, but had her work permit confiscated and never got it back, Wendy said.

“Being handcuffed is super traumatizing,” Wendy said. “Sex workers are not violent, so when there are investigations, we try to collaborate, we don’t run or fight back, so when they use chains it’s really scary.”

Sex workers interviewed for this story say raids offer a guise for officers to target and overpolice migrants and undocumented sex workers, most of whom are racialized. Sex workers like Wendy say they are not being trafficked; they perform sex work by choice, so when police and CBSA officers raid their environments, it feels like a trap to corral migrants and undocumented workers.

CBSA spokesperson, Judith Gadbois-St-Cyr, did not respond directly to the concerns voiced by migrant sex workers. She said that one of the CBSA’s many roles is to investigate human trafficking, including sex trafficking, and the agency expects staff to treat victims with respect and compassion.

A big problem with sex trafficking investigations is that Wendy and other sex workers are not sex trafficking victims—they are engaging in sex work by choice, said Elene Lam, the director of Butterfly, an advocacy group for migrant and Asian sex workers.

Lam estimated that last year alone more than 25 sex workers affiliated with Butterfly were deported following sex-trafficking raids by police, she said. (The number of sex workers deported annually is unknown because the agency doesn’t have the capacity to keep track, Gadbois-St-Cyr said.) 

“The assumption is, “Oh, she’s Asian, so must be trafficked,” Lam said. “If you don’t want to be a sex worker, that’s your decision, but when people want to do the work, why do you need to stop it, arrest them, and get them deported?” 

In April 2018, Butterfly published 18 testimonies from migrant and Asian sex workers, 15 of whom had already been deported by the time of publication, to show how anti-sex trafficking investigations and policies harm migrant sex workers.

“Butterfly has received numerous complaints from sex workers, especially in regards to the harassment and discrimination they and their friends have experienced while in the custody of trafficking investigators,” the report says.

In the report, the sex workers detail how they were enjoying established lives in Canada, with friendships, romantic partnerships, and steady incomes, until police and border agents intervened. 

The report details a 2015 raid that scared Blue, an international university student from Asia who worked at an erotic massage parlour to earn enough money to pay international tuition fees. As in Wendy’s case, police inquired about her working conditions and asked who was in charge. After Blue assured them she was working of her own volition, they called CBSA officers, who interrogated her further. Officers let Blue go but said she’d be deported if they found her engaging in sex work again. The encounter pushed her to pursue even more covert—and subsequently, less safe—sex work, Butterfly’s report says.

Migrant workers who have student or work visas are almost as disadvantaged as those who are undocumented because Canada’s immigration laws make it illegal for newcomers to perform sex work. In fact, VICE News previously reported that it’s the only line of technically legal work out of reach for new migrants with work permits. While selling sex is allowed, Canada’s criminal code prohibits all activities affiliated with it, effectively criminalizing the whole industry.

Gadbois-St-Cyr said the CBSA is “acutely aware” of the difference between sex work and sex trafficking, but added that there is a “well-established connection between human trafficking and sex work.” 

The RCMP, Canada’s national police force, did not respond directly to migrant sex worker concerns, and instead said that it is currently investigating several possible human trafficking offences across Canada. 

“The RCMP is aware that human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is prevalent in Canada,” Caroline Duval, a spokesperson with the force, said in a statement. 

An RCMP spokesperson told VICE News that there is no specific training on differentiating between sex work and sex trafficking. Officers have access to an "Introduction to Human Trafficking" course, which is “designed to enable officers in the field to better detect and investigate potential human trafficking cases, identify potential victims, and provide greater assistance to victims of human trafficking.” 

Duval added that trafficking investigations fall under the purview of local police in the jurisdiction where the investigations are taking place, so the RCMP isn’t always involved.

Toronto Police Services and Ontario Provincial Police did not reply to several requests for comment. 

Similar problems of sex trafficking pollicies harming sex workers play out elsewhere. In 2019, international feminist organizations and sex worker coalitions developed the FACT Manifesto, which clearly defines the difference between sex work and sex trafficking, and calls for inclusive anti-sex trafficking frameworks. The groups have been applying pressure on the UN committee for the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women to improve how sex trafficking and migration are understood and assessed.

“The conflation of trafficking and sex work…produce anti-trafficking measures that further stigmatize, criminalize, and isolate sex workers,” the manifesto says.

Migrant sex workers living and working in Canada often make salaries that allow them to live reasonably and support their families back home, Lam said. While many families depend on the stream of income earned by sex workers, often those same families don’t accept sex work. That reality forces people to migrate to countries like Canada, where they can earn a decent living while maintaining their privacy.

“Some workers really are afraid they’d be harmed by their family…so they can’t work in their home country out of fear of being outed,” Lam said.

The pandemic has exacerbated problems even more, Lam said, because many sex workers haven’t been eligible for COVID-19-specific government aid and couldn’t fly back home when travel was prohibited.

Wendy said she can make up to $5,000 (US $3,800) per month, which gives her a stable life and extra money to send to her family back home. She said she wants Canadian law and law enforcement to change, so that sex work can be viewed not only as legitimate work, but essential work.

 “Sex workers are essential to society. People are single, sometimes people are facing a lot of problems and issues, so they share those with us instead of family members,” she said. 

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