This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Last week, the Canadian government announced that the Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) had removed 20 members of a massive human trafficking gang from Canada and deported them back to their native Hungary. The Domotor-Kolompar crime ring — headed by kingpin Fernec Domotor — was busted up in 2010 when a victim escaped and told authorities about the atrocities he and 18 others were enduring. The case is the largest known human trafficking ring in Canadian history, exposing a problem in Canada that reaches far beyond this Hungarian crime family.
“The removal of these foreign criminals convicted of human trafficking demonstrates how our government is keeping Canadians safe,” said Steve Blaney, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.
But does it really keep Canadians safe as Blaney suggests? Or does it merely demonstrate the fact that human trafficking is a problem that is happening right in front of our faces and we have no idea? In this case alone, there were 19 victims who had been recruited from Hungary and had their passports immediately taken from them. They were housed in the basements of homes located in busy suburban neighborhoods in Hamilton. They were seen by neighbors every day leaving the house early and returning late. They went to work. After being threateningly encouraged by the gang to do so, they convinced Canadian authorities to put them on social assistance. And no one had a clue anything what was going on until two years later when one of them managed to escaped.
According to Timea Nagy, a human trafficking survivor from Hungary who had been recruited by a similar gang in 1998: “This case was only the tip of the iceberg. Human trafficking is alive and well in Canada.” She went on to say that she gets calls “every single day from the police about human trafficking cases.”
Timea started the Walk With Me organization in 2009 to help other trafficked workers get stabilized and find safe houses after they are rescued.
“It’s unbelievable… The problem is so bad in Canada, most people have no idea. It’s like bed bugs, you don’t see them at first. But if you use the proper lighting you will see that it is everywhere. Every single hotel, highway, some farmlands, every city in the country is experiencing human trafficking right now,” Timea said, adding that many cases have not yet gone public.
Timea believes the Domotor organization was just one of many organizations that is operating in Canada without anyone knowing. Trafficked workers are coming from regions all over the world including the Philippines, China, Romania and Thailand. She believes the biggest problem right now facing trafficked workers is that there is no public awareness about what the problem looks like.
The neighbors of the Domotor-Kolompar families had seen these all of these victims coming and going from their houses and had thought nothing of it. Contractors had employed them. Banks had given them debit cards (which were immediately confiscated by their captors) and every month they received checks from government social assistance.
“How is it even possible that no one had a clue?" Timea says. "The fact is that no one has any idea what is really going on here right now."
This almost willful ignorance is likely a reason why Canada is a good breeding ground for this type of crime.
Human trafficking is also a relatively new criminal offence in Canada and was only introduced into the criminal code in 2005 (not that it wasn’t happening, but it wasn’t recognized). According to the Department of Justice, trafficking can involve slavery or practices similar to slavery; forced labor or services, exploitation and the transportation or harboring of persons. It is typically used in the sex industry or for forced labor. Some regions now have human trafficking units but there is still a considerable lack of support on the force that does not necessarily have the manpower to fight this growing battle.
“Human trafficking is extremely lucrative and difficult to prove and the bad guys are starting to realize that. It’s much easier to catch people running drugs or guns than people,” said constable-detective Peter Brady, a member of the Toronto Police Human Trafficking Enforcement team. “In the past three years, I have definitely seen an increase of these types of crimes coming across my desk. That is not a question.”
Timea also said that from her daily experience she believes Canada is nowhere near halting this problem.
“There are hundreds of cases right now occurring and behind every case is an organization. We need to educate people on what this means. Some immigration laws have changed, but criminals always catch-up to that anyways.”
There is also a serious problem of domestic human trafficking, which involves Canadians trafficking other Canadians. Timea has seen cases of human traffickers who had gone into group homes and recruited vulnerable 15 year-olds. “This is not just a problem with people coming from other countries and who can’t speak English, it’s happening to Canadians, too,” she said.
A recent RCMP study found that as of December 2013, there were 50 cases of human trafficking or related convictions that were secured and 97 individuals who were convicted of human trafficking offences or related offences that include: forcible confinement, sexual assault, forced labor, procuring, conspiracy, or sexual assault.
Another serious problem for authorities is that victims are often shackled by fear and won’t come forward. Whether they have been recruited from other countries and can’t speak the language, or are from right here in Canada, they often become totally controlled by their captors, which makes it difficult for them to escape and find help.
“The mindset that the [captors] put you in the first two to three weeks will make it so you don’t want to leave. You are scared for your family because they will threaten to kill them. You are fed one meal a day, beaten, emotionally abused, and eventually you are like a zombie. You are enslaved in chains of fear and shame. They get you to a point where you no longer know who you are,” Timea said.
The affects of this crime can be totally devastating on the lives of its victims.
Last June 60-year-old Janos Acs, a victim of the Domotor crime family, took a walk to the central train tracks in Hamilton, Ontario and laid across them to die. Despite being set free for several years, Janos’s life had been so severely damaged by his slavery that he could not find a way to recover.
“The end of Janos’ life is really tragic. He was such a good man, so kind, genuine and naïve. He just trusted everyone and would never have hurt anyone,” Timea said. “But it does speak to how awful it can be for victims.”
Every day Timea shows up to help other victims of this horrifying crime. But for her part, she can only do so much. She wants to turn it over to the public and let everyone know that they need to continue to educate themselves and become more aware of the problem.
“It really is everywhere. We all need to just open our eyes and understand what we are looking at.”
Follow Angela Hennessy on Twitter: @angelamaries
Image via Flickr