Canada’s Migrant Workers are being Targeted in Police Raids

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North America & Caribbean Regional Correspondent

In the aftermath of Canada’s new “end demand” style policy on sex work, migrant sex workers (including those with legal status) are being swept up in crackdowns and police sweeps, which they say are endangering them.

Elene Lam, from NSWP member group, Butterfly, the Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network, which was established in the autumn to advocate for Asian and migrant sex workers, spoke to a reporter from Now Toronto to give some context to the difficult situation facing Asian and migrant sex workers in Canada.

"It's wrong to assume that all Asian sex workers are here illegally," she said. One woman who is legal was arrested four times in a week. In a week!"

Lam said that the people she works with are being persecuted by a combination of municipal police forces, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers and bylaw authorities, who raid sex workers’ places of work and demand their documentation and collect personal information including their contacts. She also said that Asian workers are "always being used to push the rescue model” because they are presumed to be trafficked and in need of help. But when they are found to be not in need of help, they are punished instead, often by being deported.

Several major police sweeps have occurred in the past few months, including one in Ottawa where police raided 20 massage and body rub parlours in a three-day long bust that they claimed was part of a human trafficking investigation. No human trafficking was uncovered but 11 "foreign nationals" were deported on work permit violations.

Sex worker groups spoke up against the deportations, saying that undocumented workers in Canada are more vulnerable to violence and are far less likely to come forward as witnesses to report crime if they fear deportation.

"It makes people hide further underground, makes them more vulnerable to violence and endangers their safety," said Elene Lam at the time.

Now Toronto argues that, for migrant sex workers, who may not speak English and have no reason to trust police, “these recent warrant-less incursions into their homes and workplaces are especially frightening.” 

Lam said, "We see a kind of racial profiling, so this is very problematic. Even when women have [legal immigration] status, there is a lot of abuse. They are being detained; their personal information is being taken."

Now Toronto cites a survey of Asian sex workers in Toronto and Vancouver taken in May by NSWP member group, the Supporting Women's Alternatives Network (SWAN). The survey found that that 95 per cent of respondents never seek help from law enforcement – “even if they are experiencing violence, abuse, harassment or exploitation. In Toronto, not a single respondent trusted the police.”

Lam puts this down to the heavy-handed approach of the police:

"Yes, some women might be working in exploitative situations, but how does it help to criminalize or arrest them?” She asked. “What police are doing is making it more difficult to get the support they need.”