Nfld. & Labrador

Police sex trafficking sting doing more harm than good, N.L. groups say

Operation Northern Spotlight is aimed at finding sex workers who are victims of human trafficking. But the Safe Harbour Outreach Project says it's putting sex workers at risk.

Safe Harbour Outreach Project says sex workers losing income, trust

Heather Jarvis is the program coordinator for the Safe Harbour Outreach Project, or S.H.O.P., which advocates for the rights of sex workers in Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador groups are adding their voice to a national chorus calling for an end to a sting operation targeting sex trafficking.

"It is damaging relationships in our community and creating situations where violence will actually increase," said Heather Jarvis, project coordinator of the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP).

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the RCMP have been participating in Operation Northern Spotlight, a nation-wide enforcement operation targeting sex trafficking which began in 2014.

The RCMP say the goal is to identify and assist those working in the sex trade who might be victims of human trafficking.

Sex worker advocacy groups in British Columbia and Ontario have also asked for the operation to end.

The force says 334 interviews were done last October and 16 people were "removed from exploitative situations."

But Jarvis said the operation does more harm than good. SHOP. and the St. John's Status of Women's Council want it to end.

'These women are being lied to'

According to Jarvis, Operation Northern Spotlight involves police officers posing as potential clients, and setting up meetings with sex workers.

"These women are being lied to by police," she said.

"They come to a hotel room expecting to meet a client and expecting to gain income from this encounter, and instead are met with a team of police officers who question them. They feel very condescended to, they feel incredibly frightened. They're very worried about being arrested and put in jail."

Jarvis said this has the effect of pushing sex work further underground.

Jarvis says Operation Northern Spotlight is driving sex work even further underground, making conditions more dangerous for workers. (CBC)

She said some workers are now reluctant to meet clients in places like hotels, which are safer for them.

If workers feel like the police are out to get them, they could also be less likely to report crimes or seek help, Jarvis said.

"What we know is that sex workers face high rates of violence often because the people who target them know that they won't report to the police because they have such an antagonistic relationship with law enforcement." 

Concerns from Ontario, British Columbia

SHOP's concerns with Operation Northern Spotlight are not new or unique. Jarvis said they've let the province's police forces know how they and the people they work with feel about the operation. Sex worker advocacy groups in British Columbia and Ontario have also asked for the operation to end.

"With all of our relationship building that we've been trying to do with the RNC, specifically in recent years, this is really disappointing for us to learn that even after we shared our concerns and our criticisms of operations like this — how they damage any relationship building with sex workers — they continue to do this," she said.

"We definitely feel that trust has been broken."

With files from Lisa Gushue