Jane Armstrong Vancouver — From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail Last updated on Tuesday, Sep. 15, 2009 12:19PM EDT .
Timea Nagy was 20 when she answered a help-wanted listing in her native Hungary seeking nannies to work in Canada. The flight and travel arrangements were all paid and it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. It turned into an unthinkable nightmare. The arrangement was, in fact, a human trafficking operation. There was no happy family at the Toronto airport to greet Ms. Nagy. Instead, three men – one Canadian and two Hungarians – whisked her to an Etobicoke motel, handed her some skimpy lingerie and drove her to a strip club, where she was forced to dance and perform sexual favours for male customers. Over the next two months, Ms. Nagy was sexually attacked by her agent and verbally threatened by his associates, who forced her to work day and night in strip clubs and massage parlours, which were fronts for brothels. All her earnings – more than $2,000 a week – were confiscated by her captors. She and four other Hungarian women were moved from motel to motel, and the men warned them that they would hurt or kill family members back home if they tried to escape. “It’s not like they chained you up,” Ms. Nagy, 32, said in a recent interview. “They didn’t have to. They threatened us every single day. They said, ‘We’ll burn your mother’s house down. We have her address.’” Eventually, Ms. Nagy overcame her fears and escaped, and was able to turn her life around. Today, she works for the Salvation Army as a counsellor helping trafficking victims. Her story will soon be featured in an aggressive – and controversial – awareness campaign launched by the Christian church and social services agency against human trafficking. The campaign features graphic photos of young women being abused and degraded. Some of these posters have been draped in men’s bathrooms in Vancouver bars. The Salvation Army has also announced plans to set up a Vancouver shelter – the first of its kind in Canada – for trafficking victims. The 10-bed facility, which will open this fall, will be staffed 24 hours a day. The church says the shelter is needed in part because it believes the Olympics will cause a spike in human trafficking. It doesn’t have hard data but notes that, in the past, large sporting events have prompted such an increase. “I know we don’t have numbers, but my gut tells me this is happening, probably a lot more than we even know,” said the Salvation Army’s Major Winn Blackman. Human trafficking experts, sexual assault centres and aboriginal groups have applauded the new shelter, saying it’s badly needed and overdue. But the Salvation Army’s campaign has drawn scorn from some prostitutes, and reopened the angry debate between those who want to legalize all aspects of prostitution, and abolitionists, who say it degrades and endangers vulnerable women. Critics say the Salvation Army, which wants to end all forms of prostitution, is fear mongering when it asserts the Olympics will increase the demand. They say there is no evidence that large sporting events necessarily lead to more prostitution. And they have accused the Salvation Army of exaggerating the scope of human trafficking in Canada to advance its abolitionist agenda. Prostitution is legal in Canada, but it’s a crime to solicit for the purposes of prostitution. “It’s one of those shock-and-awe campaigns,” said lawyer Karen Mirsky of the Pivot Legal Society, which advocates for Vancouver’s poor and marginalized. Ms. Mirsky said the awareness campaign was designed to “generate an emotional response.” She cited a recent study, paid for by the provincial government, which suggested there will be no surge in prostitution during the 2010 Winter Games. From strictly a business perspective, it said, the prospect of bringing women to the Vancouver area for a two-week sporting event isn’t cost effective. “What is far more likely is you will have women in the sex trade voluntarily coming here because they perceive more business,” Ms. Mirsky said. “That’s mobility. That’s not trafficking.” One Vancouver sex worker, Sue Davis, said the Salvation Army campaign demonizes prostitution and encourages police raids, which drive sex workers underground. Ms. Davis, 41, said abolitionists are attempting to create panic by suggesting that hordes of prostitutes will descend on Vancouver for the Games. She said legalizing all aspects of prostitution – including licensing safe brothels – would make life safer for sex workers. But the Salvation Army and many women’s groups disagree. Lee Lakeman, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, said she’s seen an increase in the last five years of trafficked women who flee to shelters to escape captors. Meanwhile, Maj. Blackman said the church has received reports in the Vancouver area that attempts have already begun to lure women and girls into prostitution. “We can only assume that this is [related] to the Olympics,” she said. Ms. Nagy said her harrowing story is proof that human trafficking exists and that victims are terrorized into silence. She escaped her captors a decade ago with the help of a sympathetic bouncer at a strip club where she worked. Ms. Nagy took her story to the police and was eventually granted permanent residency in Canada. She believes the Salvation Army shelter will save lives and that its awareness campaign will set the tone in Vancouver by telling visitors it’s not okay to sexually exploit women and children. Ms. Nagy said she hopes her story will persuade the public that human trafficking is widespread. “The reason why there is no data,” she said, “is because it’s designed from beginning to end to make sure the women are always in a state of fear.”