ISSUE: Human Trafficking Vs. Human Smuggling

Trafficking in Persons and Human Smuggling

Laura Barnett, Julie Béchard

Issue | Human smuggling and trafficking in persons are subjects of increasing concern to border officials and law enforcement agencies.

Synopsis | Trafficking in persons and human smuggling are distinct but overlapping problems that involve complex immigration and exploitation issues. Border and law enforcement officials are actively confronted with the realities of these growing phenomena on the ground, while parliamentarians strive to find legislative solutions.

Human smuggling and trafficking in persons are some of the most controversial and challenging modern migration and human rights issues facing the Canadian government today, as demonstrated by intense debate over the issues during the 40th Parliament. Although human smuggling and trafficking in persons are often seen as synonymous, these related activities often involve quite distinct patterns of exploitation and victimization and differ with respect to geographical scope and legal framework.


Human smuggling involves a person who facilitates the illegal entry of a migrant into a country, usually for a fee. The term conjures images of migrants being smuggled across the Canada–United States border, or arriving off Canada’s shores by boat. However, human smuggling can also involve the production and sale of false identification or immigration documentation. It is thus an international phenomenon involving illegal migration, and is an issue of concern to border and federal law enforcement officials.

By contrast, trafficking in persons involves the recruitment, transportation and harbouring of a person for the purposes of forced service by means of deception, coercion or debt bondage. Although the image typically associated with trafficking is that of women and children brought into Canada and forced into the sex trade, victims of trafficking also include those exploited as farm, domestic or other labourers. Unlike smuggling, trafficking is not necessarily an international phenomenon: it can occur across provincial as well as national borders, and even between cities.

Of course, the activities of trafficking and smuggling can overlap. For example, some illegal migrants pay a fee for their passage and are forced into service to repay their debt. Consenting migrant sex workers may be forced to operate in unexpectedly exploitative conditions. These points of overlap, where irregular migration begins to entail coercive and exploitative service, lead to a blurring of the lines between trafficking and smuggling.