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How Canada’s Immigration Laws Make Migrant Sex Workers’ Jobs More Dangerous

Ban on migrant sex work has led to persecution and deportation, advocacy group says.

When Liu* moved from Eastern Asia to study engineering at an Ontario university, her struggling family became unable to cover her tuition costs. To get by, she took a job in an erotic massage parlour, which provided both the flexible hours she needed for her studies and the income to pay for school.

In 2015, police raided Liu's workplace in search of sex trafficking victims and warned the young student that her job violated the conditions of her visa. If she continued to work there, they said, she could be arrested and deported.

Terrified, Liu quit the parlour and struck out on her own, meeting clients in rented rooms. This job somewhat shielded her from police, but it also forced her to provide sexual services she wasn't necessarily comfortable with, in an environment she found less safe. If anything bad were to happen, she would have no one to call for help.

Liu's is one of a dozen similar stories collected by Toronto-based advocacy group Butterfly, which provides support and information to migrant sex workers across the country.

Surveys, research, and testimonials compiled by the organization paint a picture of a population traumatized by the constant threat of deportation.

That's because Canada's immigration laws dictate that sex work—while legal for Canadians—is off-limits to any immigrant coming to live, work, or study in Canada. In fact, it is the only legal line of work that migrants cannot get involved in. And that, according to Butterfly, is putting women in danger.

Elene Lam, president of Butterfly

"Almost no women call police, because they know if they do, they will have more problems," Butterly president Elene Lam told VICE, adding that in the last three years, her organisation has noted at least five murders involving migrant sex workers.

"Since last December, 13 women have been arrested and deported," she added.

But Lam explained stats pertaining to migrant sex workers are hard to come by, let alone measure. "There are lots of groups fighting for sex workers' rights, but for migrant sex workers, it's more difficult to engage them in the movement because of language or immigration status."

Canada's Border Services Agency told VICE it doesn't compile figures about deportations related to work in the sex industry. "A person who is an illegal worker, be it sex work or something else, is contravening immigration laws," a CBSA spokesperson told VICE. "And that's coded as illegal work, not specifically sex work."

At the law enforcement level, Lam says relevant figures are nearly nonexistent.

Migrant sex workers fall into various categories: some are applying for citizenship or permanent residency, others have work, student or tourist visas, some are refugees, and some are undocumented. All are trapped in a Catch-22 situation: if they are assaulted or robbed in the context of their work and report it to police, they face deportation. If they opt to avoid police, they can find themselves in dangerous—even occasionally fatal—situations.

Citizenship and Immigration explicitly precludes migrant workers from getting jobs in strip clubs, massage parlours and escort agencies, a limitation it cites as a "standard condition that applies to ALL work permit holders." The government claims this is to limit the risk of sexual exploitation.

"Often, vulnerable individuals in these occupations find themselves trapped and threatened and they may lack knowledge of the help that is available to them," a CIC spokesperson told VICE. "It does not make sense for the Government of Canada to knowingly authorize vulnerable individuals to enter into potentially abusive situations."

Other than the obligation to leave Canada when the visa expires, the ban on sex work is the only mandatory condition that's automatically included on all work permits.

Lam explained that the increased power warranted by the Conservatives' controversial sex work reform bill adds a layer of complication. Passed in November 2014 by the Harper government, C-36 criminalizes pretty much every aspect of sex work except for the act itself. Targeting clients and pimps, the law penalizes the buying of sex, the advertising of sexual services and the profiting off of someone else's sexual interactions. While the legislation was touted as a way to protect sex workers, it has been heavily criticized for further stigmatizing the industry and pushing workers deeper underground. The regulations have discouraged women from working in groups or from hiring security guards, and the criminalization of clients means workers are more likely to meet johns in remote locations, away from help and support.

The law's impact on the industry is hard to measure, since enforcement of C-36 is at the discretion of individual police services and varies from one community to the next. Recent data compiled by La Presse shows that in Quebec the number of sex-work client arrests has actually been relatively low. The law has also reportedly limited police focus on massage parlours, putting more emphasis on the public sale of sexual services and the arrest of clients.

But Lam explained that news reports and testimonials she's gathered show police have been using the anti-trafficking framework of this law to specifically target Asian sex workers, a practice that has led to an increase in deportations.

In one particular case, Lam said "police explicitly said they go on the internet and try to find Asians because they say they're vulnerable to trafficking," a practice she qualifies as racial profiling.

"Because migrant sex workers, particularly Asians, are quite quiet, police take advantage of this missing voice," she said, explaining this makes it easier to label these workers as victims of human trafficking. "But what actually happens is that the police comes in and ask the women if they're being controlled, if they have a boss." If or when the women say no, she says, police ask to see their citizenship documents.

If they're unable to present these documents, Lam said the women are arrested and then deported—leaving behind belongings, friends and sometimes entire families—and often forced to return to a life they had fled. "They ran away because of certain reasons, and you're forcing them back into horrible situations without preparation."

What's worse is that many women have shared tales of police abuse of power, according to Lam.

"They come in, they show that they are the police and ask for free sex services," she said. "It's like a knife to the neck of these women: when police come in they feel they need to [cooperate] to follow the instructions."

Last July, SPVM officer Faycal Djelidi, who worked on the force's "Morality Squad," was arrested and charged with obtaining sexual services from sex workers (among other things). It's not clear whether the women were migrants, and the case against Djelidi has not been proven in court.

Lam hopes Butterfly can shed more light on these stories, and help society understand why migrant people may choose sex work.

"Sex work for many Asians is an alternative, it's how they survive," she said. "When they move to Canada, [migrants] may have a lot of challenges, especially trans people who face a lot of discrimination and can use sex work actually to resist a lot of oppression from their family or racism," Lam said.

Many of the jobs available to these men and women are minimum wage gigs with gruelling schedules, she explained, and "through sex work they feel they have more autonomy, they can arrange their time, they can take care of their children and they may have a better income to further their education."

"That's a story we need to recognize."

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