Activist says legal prostitution gives green light to sex trade traffickers

The Vancouver Courier
January 1, 2006
C. Rossi
Photo: Kyle Hoobin, Vancouver Courier / Alice Lee says legalizing prostitution is a complex issue that needs debate and public input.

Group calls decriminalization a Band-Aid solution that will hurt Asian women

A coalition of Asian women wants the Parliamentary Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws not to recommend the full decriminalization of prostitution.

The coalition says decriminalization is a racist and sexist move that would hurt Asian women in Vancouver, across Canada and worldwide.

Alice Lee, who was worked with Vancouver Rape Relief for the past decade, coordinated the Asian Women Led Coalition Ending Prostitution earlier this month because she's concerned about the trafficking of South and East Asian women to Canada for work in massage parlours. "If you look at even the Georgia Straight, or whatever, in the back at the advertisements, there's more and more Asian women advertised," Lee said, noting a woman who conducts outreach with Vancouver's massage parlour workers told her 80 per cent of the workers are Asian.

South Asian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Chinese and Indonesian women, a couple of whom have been involved in the sex trade, comprise the coalition. According to Lee, reports from Australia and Sweden suggest legalized prostitution hasn't increased the safety or health of sex workers in those countries. "In summary, what they say is it [decriminalization] doesn't actually protect women, either on the health basis or on lessening prostitution," she said. "In fact, it increases prostitution both in child prostitution and in trafficking of women."

Lee says the city, which licenses massage parlours, should not be responsible for detecting traffickers. "It's impossible for them to know if those owners are traffickers or not if you're just relying on criminal records, and that's all you can rely on," she said. Lee added traffickers often supply fake IDs and visas for their victims. Other foreign women involved in sex work enter Canada as mail order brides, domestic workers and adult entertainers.

Lee said a bill, introduced by Justice Minister Irwin Cotler in May to combat human trafficking, is incomplete because it doesn't include adequate protection for trafficking victims.

The United Nations estimates more than 700,000 people, many of them women and children, are victims of a worldwide trafficking industry worth an estimated $7 billion to $10 billion.

Lee said the group doesn't want prostitutes criminalized. Instead, the coalition is calling for clients, pimps, traffickers and anyone who profits from their work to be punished. She believes access to decent paying jobs, food, affordable housing and education are key to ending prostitution. "It's a very complex issue and I don't think we should take it very lightly and go quickly into forming a red light district," she said. "I want there to be lots of public debate and discussion. I think most people do not know about the issues. I understand people's wanting to protect women that are currently in prostitution- -so do I--and the concern people have for the missing women in the Downtown Eastside, but I don't think this is the answer and I feel like this is more like a Band-Aid solution."

The Jan. 23 federal election will likely decide the Parliamentary Subcommittee's fate.

(Copyright Vancouver Courier 2006)