National Human Trafficking Awareness Day: Move beyond awareness raising and towards systemic solutions

Year Published: 2024

February 22 is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day in Canada. Once again, an alarm will sound that human trafficking is a national crisis of epidemic proportions. Awareness will be raised about the signs of trafficking and how to identify victims.

But is human trafficking an epidemic and is awareness raising the best way to address it?

Canada’s official human trafficking statistics are “police-reported incidents.” How do police define an “incident”? Does “police-reported” mean charges laid, charges approved, or cases prosecuted? The answer is unclear. Without sound data, we do not know how prevalent human trafficking is in Canada. We are taught that it is everywhere, yet it is nowhere when it comes to prosecutions. To declare we have an epidemic based on unsound data is irresponsible. Creating laws, policies, and practices when the extent of an issue is unknown is imprudent. Yet, decision-makers are compelled to act to be seen as doing something, anything. The typical response is awareness-raising campaigns and training.

Raising awareness about actions that compound the problem

The focus on individuals – the victim (trafficked person), villain (trafficker), and hero (police officer, white savior) – seems innocuous. Individual stories need to be told.

However, the hyperfocus on individual stories renders root causes invisible; systemic factors such as neoliberal capitalism, racism, and gender inequity, among other factors, are embedded in harmful immigration, labour, migration, and sex work policies that remain intact. When we are taught to identify the bad guys and save the victims one-by-one, we are distracted from holding governments and other key actors accountable for how they create and maintain systemic vulnerability to exploitation and human trafficking.

The focus on the individual is not so innocuous in another way: individuals are blamed in a roundabout way for the lack of prosecutions due to their reluctance to come forward. Systemic factors, which create conditions where exploitation and trafficking thrive, or that discourage trafficked persons from seeking help, are much more difficult to prosecute.

This February 22, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women Canada would like to raise awareness of the shortcomings of the individualized echo chamber human trafficking prevention and response has become because of an overemphasis on awareness raising. If you address human trafficking, we ask you to reflect on the extent to which your actions on Human Trafficking Awareness Day are evidence-based and address systemic causes.

Here are some resources that we have found useful in our work and speak to the issues raised here.