Every day, thousands of women, men and children around the world are trafficked for sex exploitation and forced marriage, labour and organ removal. They are the people left vulnerable by armed conflict, displacement, climate change, natural disasters and poverty. This year, there is a new impetus: COVID-19.

As the UN marks its sixth annual World Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, the world is experiencing unprecedented lockdowns to stop the spread of Coronavirus. The measures taken to contain this deadly virus are affecting more than 80% of the global workforce, a recent study by the International Labour Organization (ILO) shows. Job losses coupled with growing areas of need such as health care could leave unprotected workers — particularly undocumented migrants and refugees — at risk of being trafficked.

‘Unfinished business’

The unrelenting trafficking in human beings and society’s indifference to a crime ultimately is what kept Joseph Mari, Director, Financial Intelligence Unit and External Partnerships at Scotiabank, in the fight.

In 2015, Mari was working in two streams of anti-money laundering and financial crimes: he was becoming an expert in cryptocurrency and he had just become lead co-ordinator in Project Protect, a public/private partnership between Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC), law enforcement and major Canadian banks aimed at stopping human trafficking. It wasn’t until 2019, with jobs in cryptocurrency on the table, that Mari was forced to make a choice. 

“I felt that there was unfinished business with human trafficking and a lot of messages that needed to come out and a lot of assistance that the industry still needed in successfully standing up an anti-trafficking unit that's capable of taking on that work,” said Mari, about his decision to join Scotiabank.

Collaborative culture

He credits a collaborative culture and the Bank’s strong stance on human rights for enabling the Financial Crime Risk Management group to work with organizations worldwide and to help Scotiabank fulfill the goals it sets each year as they relate to human trafficking .

In the past 18 months, the group has taken part in several national and international anti-trafficking initiatives, not least of which is the Financial Access Project, in which survivors of human trafficking receive help in rebuilding their financial lives. Scotiabank, in partnership with the Salvation Army’s anti-human trafficking program Deborah’s Gate, was the first bank in Canada to work with survivors to open bank accounts. Recently, Scotiabank became a member of global non-profit BSR’s Human Rights Working Group to collaborate with companies in various sectors to develop concrete solutions to human rights issues.

Scotiabank also supports NGOs across Canada that offer emergency shelter and youth counselling, including Covenant House in Vancouver and Toronto, Egale Canada Human Rights Trust in the Toronto area and the Old Brewery Mission in Montreal.

Money trail

There also was a collaboration with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in compiling a compendium of resources, Following the Money, to share among 57 participating states including Canada, the United States and the U.K. And earlier this month, Mari participated in a two-day virtual roundtable co-organized by the Office of the OSCE Special Representative for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organization, that saw a panel of international experts address human trafficking for organ removal.

Organ traffickers remain elusive: In the past 13 years, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has collected information on about 700 victims, compared with 225,000 victims of trafficking for all other purposes. The reasons are twofold: the nature of the crime means money often crosses several borders, and the issue hasn’t been on many people’s radar until a few years ago. The roundtable participants noted that it will take international judicial co-operation to detect and prosecute these crimes successfully, something Project Organ, a global AML initiative set up in 2018 to look at connecting financial transactions, can attest to. The project has seen limited success largely due to financial transactions typically taking place in multiple countries. 

With all types of trafficking, the key to making a difference comes from disrupting the financial chain, something Project Protect plays a vital role in. Suspicious transaction reports (STRs) to FINTRAC increased to 4,200 from 450 in 2017 as a direct result of the project’s collective research on refining red flag indicators of human trafficking, a November 2019 article notes. This past year, FINTRAC provided 251 disclosures of financial intelligence from STRs to police forces across Canada.

Building bridges

In May, Mari was chosen for the CivicAction DiverseCity Fellows program in Toronto, the first Scotiabank employee selected in the 10 years the program has been running. The DiverseCity Fellows program helps rising leaders develop new skills and capabilities to build bridges across sectors and mobilize collective action. Mari is looking to the program to give him a better understanding of how he can be an ally of people of diverse backgrounds. He also hopes to raise awareness for Project Protect and share some of the knowledge he gained through international partnerships. Scotiabank is a community partner of CivicAction Toronto, committing $250,000 over three years to promote children’s safety and well-being.