Many survivors of human trafficking, advocates say, are left drowning in debt incurred by their trafficker
The Ford government introduced a bill in the House this week that will increase police powers to investigate human trafficking crimes.
The bill will allow police to collect online evidence on human trafficking and require hotels to produce their guest registry for police investigations, among other measures.
Toronto police report that most victims of human trafficking are recruited between the ages of 14 and 17 and forced into sex work. Many are sexually abused. Others are left holding the bag on bad debts fraudulently incurred by their trafficker.
It’s not a side of the human trafficking story that’s often seen. But as well as debts from credit card fraud, survivors of human trafficking often face government fines for things like driving without insurance while being trafficked.
Some like Layla (not her real name), who was pulled out of school by her trafficker, have incurred OSAP debt. She cannot return to school because, with outstanding debt, she cannot get more loans.
She says that every time her phone rings, her first thought is that it’s collections again, and she wonders “how much I will have to take out of my kids’ mouths this month to please the government for a debt that was never my fault.”
Summer, another survivor, describes “drowning in an ocean of debt” because her trafficker held her life and finances under his complete control.
The financial fallout from their abuse means that survivors of trafficking are often stuck living in shelters. A poor credit rating means they are unable to rent an apartment. Others like Vanessa who still have a place of their own, cannot afford to pay the rent with banks “scooping” their Ontario Works cheques over unpaid credit cards.
Vanessa says the $1,367 OW cheque scooped by her bank was for a credit card debt incurred by her trafficker to pay for hotel rooms and Airbnb units where she was sold for sex. (Traffickers often use a card taken in their victim’s name because it makes it harder for police to trace them.)
Ironically, at the same time as the Ford government is introducing laws to fight human trafficking, survivors are left feeling re-victimized and shamed for the sins of their trafficker.
Richard Dunwoody, director of Project Recover, an agency that supports survivors, says that while collection agencies he’s talked to on behalf of survivors are sympathetic, financial institutions are not always as responsive.
Dunwoody had informed Vanessa’s bank that she was a survivor of human trafficking weeks earlier. He says that they have both the mechanisms in place and the capacity to forgive debts incurred by survivors using the identities of victims of human trafficking.
It’s a shortcoming of the Ford government’s bill, says the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking. The group says the bill needs to be expanded to provide financial relief from bad debts. It says that the government also needs to provide steady funding for programs and supports for survivors.
It’s not enough for the Ford government to take some measures to curb human trafficking. They must do everything they can to help survivors move on with their lives.
Chris Glover is NDP MPP for Spadina-Fort York.