Caught in the Carceral Web: Anti-Trafficking Laws and Policies and Their Impact on Migrant Sex Workers

In Canada, a complex and multiscalar web of laws has been constructed to target sex trafficking. These laws range from federal prohibitions against human trafficking in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and Criminal Code, to provincial laws that provide tools to raise awareness of the offence, to detect alleged traffickers and to provide victims with redress, to municipal by-laws that strictly regulate businesses such as massage parlours, body rub salons and holistic centres considered to be at risk of harbouring human trafficking. This tight web of repressive and restrictive laws is based upon two deeply rooted assumptions; the first, that immigrant women are especially vulnerable to trafficking for sexual exploitation, and the second, that the commercial sex sector is inseparable from trafficking. The express goals of this carceral and repressive approach to human trafficking are to protect immigrant women who are vulnerable to sex trafficking by prohibiting them from working in any aspect of the sex industry and to reduce demand by making it a crime to purchase, materially benefit from, procure or advertise sexual services.

Written by Sandra Ka Hon Chu (HIV Legal Network), Elene Lam (Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network), Judy Fudge (McMaster University), and Vincent Wong (PhD candidate, Osgoode Hall Law School), this report evaluates the combined impact of four areas of law on migrant sex workers: federal criminal laws targeting sex work and human trafficking; federal immigration laws regarding both inadmissibility as well as human trafficking; Ontario’s human trafficking laws; and municipal bylaws in Toronto regulating holistic health centres and body rub parlours. To do so, it places the regulation of migrant sex workers in a broader historical context; maps the specific laws that create this carceral web; reviews the growing academic and grey literature on the impact of these laws on migrant sex workers; and provides a qualitative study of migrant sex workers and their advocates regarding the impact of these laws. The goal of this report is to review the evidence on the impact of these laws by centering the voices of migrant sex workers and their organizations.

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