Human Trafficking & HIV in Canada

By Karen McCrae, ACT Alberta

Human trafficking is a serious crime that ranks amongst the most severe forms of exploitation worldwide. It is an issue that often evokes images of young girls coerced in brothels in distant countries, children enslaved on cocoa plantations, or exhausted men forced to work in captivity at sea. However, human trafficking is also happening right here in Canada.

Human trafficking is the act of forcing or deceiving an individual into providing sex or labour for personal gain. Right here in our own country, women, children, and men are working long hours for no pay in dirty and degrading conditions or are being forced to engage in sex acts against their will.

ACT Alberta (Action Coalition on Human Trafficking) has been responding to human trafficking in Alberta since 2008. We work collaboratively with law enforcement, government agencies, and non-government organizations to coordinate services for victims of human trafficking, provide training and education, research and collect data on human trafficking, and build capacity for community-based responses.  We do not discriminate and will assist any victim of any kind of trafficking

The breadth of this issue in Canada is hard to measure as human trafficking is a hidden crime. However, according to the International Labour Organization in 2005, “approximately 12.3 million people were held in forced labor, of which 2.45 million had been trafficked into forced labor. Of those, approximately 1.4 million people were trafficked into the sex sector, the majority of them women and girls.”

Our numbers of referrals have doubled on average Karen Picevery year and we expect our numbers to continue to increase. This is a major problem that Albertans need to be aware of as victims are living and working unrecognized around us – hidden in plain sight.

Although much remains unknown, one thing is certain – trafficked people live out their lives in fear and shame. They are at heightened risk of oppression, violence, and serious health issues. Those who have been trafficked for the purpose of sex are at a much higher risk of contracting HIV, as “[…] the rate of infection is higher among sex workers than the general population [and] many women in the sex sector are victims of trafficking.” (UNAIDS, 2007). Victims are tightly controlled by those trafficking them, who will often not let them call their parents, connect with their children, or speak to friends, let alone receive proper medical care, including safer sex options and birth control. More research is urgently needed to determine the rate of HIV infection amongst those who have been victims of human trafficking, both locally and globally.

Existing research shows that HIV and human trafficking are inextricably linked.  “Denying human rights to any one person perpetrates an injustice that has ramifications far beyond the local level.  Indeed, it cripples globally-supported attempts to stem the spread of [HIV] that has no regard for gender, age, race, marital status, sexual orientation, immigration status, or religion.” (Sippel, 2010). Many of those who have been trafficked come from backgrounds of poverty, addiction, child abuse, or mental illness. Aboriginal peoples in Canada are documented to be disproportionately affected by trafficking due to colonialism and discrimination and it is estimated that Aboriginal peoples, although they make up only 4% of the population, account for 12% of all new HIV infections (Statistics Canada, 2011).

Newcomers to Canada, including Temporary Foreign Workers, students, and visitors, are also disproportionately affected. In addition to being targeted by traffickers, newcomers to Canada from countries where HIV is endemic make up only 2.5% of the Canadian population but account for 16.9% of all new HIV infections (PHAC 2014).

Traffickers know how to use vulnerabilities to their own advantage and they lure victims with hopes and dreams for a better future. In ACT Alberta’s experience, victims often know their traffickers – they may be boyfriends, friends, employers, drug dealers, or others in positions of power. Traffickers deceive, manipulate, or force victims into engaging in sex or labour, using their power over an individual to control them.

If you suspect human trafficking, I urge you to call 911, Crime Stoppers or your local law enforcement. Human trafficking is violent and perpetrators of this abuse are often dangerous. If you suspect human trafficking is occurring, report it – do not get involved.  To end human trafficking, we need community collaboration and support for the most vulnerable among us.  We have a responsibility to stand up against this abuse.

To learn more about human trafficking in Alberta and Canada, visit their website.


UNAIDS, Summary of the 2008 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic
UNAIDS, Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work (New York: UNAIDS, 2009)
International Labour Organization, ―A Global Alliance against Forced Labor: Report of the Director-General
Human Rights, HIV and AIDS, and the Sex Sector: A Brief Overview, Serra Sippel, President, Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE)
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