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TORONTO – from www.canoe.com – When Timea Nagy [pictured] answered an ad in a Budapest newspaper, she thought she was coming to Toronto to work as a nanny for the summer.
Instead, when the 19-year-old was picked up by three burly men awaiting her at Pearson Airport, she was told she now owed $3,000 for her travel expenses and would have to pay them back by working as a stripper and sex worker. “I freaked out. I wanted to go home,” she said.
But that wasn’t an option. The men told her that if she didn’t pay off her debt to them, they’d kill her family back in Hungary.
The terrified young woman soon learned that she was not the only one who had been misled into the sex trade. Like her, hundreds were being brought into Canada from abroad under the temporary visa for exotic dancers, which allowed owners to staff their clubs, with many of these girls not knowing what really awaited them.
“They took me to this motel in Etobicoke and there were 130 women from Eastern Europe all in the same boat,” said Nagy, 35.
During her three months as their sex slave, she was raped and threatened with death until she finally managed to escape.
That was 14 years ago but not much has improved. Various governing parties over the years have promised to crack down on the human trafficking of vulnerable foreign women but their measures have tinkered with immigration rules and the abuse has continued.
But that may finally be about to change.
Effective immediately, employers linked to the sex trade will be effectively prevented from hiring any temporary foreign workers, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced Wednesday.
Also, as of July 14, Citizenship and Immigration Canada will no longer process new work permit applications from anyone applying to sex-trade related businesses-such as strip clubs, escort services and massage parlours.
“Denying these businesses access to temporary foreign workers will help protect vulnerable individuals by keeping them out of these types of situations,” the ministers said in a joint news release.
“I think it’s a really good start,” said Nagy, founder of the anti-trafficking group, Walk with Me. “We just have to make sure other avenues are tightened as well, such as more strict monitoring of student visas and visitors visas.”
Nagy was brought in to Canada on a stripper visa. Claiming there was a “labour shortage” of homegrown peelers, club owners in the early 1990s convinced the federal government to allow a special temporary work visa for exotic dancers.
At one point, there were as many as 880 strippers a year being fast-tracked through the immigration process, with most coming from Eastern Europe. But that controversial loophole got closed in 2004 after Strippergate: Former Liberal immigration minister Judy Sgro used the program to extend the visa of a Romanian exotic dancer who had worked on her election campaign.
Even so, 100 of those visas were still being renewed each year since 2006.
The extent of human trafficking in sex workers is difficult to pin down. The first major report by the RCMP in 2004 estimated that about 600 foreign nationals are brought to Canada each year to work in the sex trade, with many lured here by fraudulent offers of employment.
Once their passports and visas are seized, they’re forced to work in strip clubs, massage parlours and brothels set up in hotel rooms, apartments and luxury condos.
Immigration rules have been tightened over the last few years, but Nagy still hears from desperate women who call her hotline.
“There are strip joints in Ontario where women are working and are kept from having any access to a phone or their documents,” she said.
In the last two years, she’s heard from 200 victims. Most are Canadian-born, but many of the others are from Eastern Europe or the Philippines.
“We do what we can,” she said, sighing. “We pick them up, take them to a safe place, feed them and try and help them.”
She managed to escape. Now she’s helping others do the same.
Wednesday’s announcement, Nagy said, just made that a little easier.