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VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Human trafficking groups have exploited Canada's visa rules to bring victims from Europe and Asia to work in the illegal sex trade, according to a police study released on Monday.
Canada is also used as a transit route for victims, mostly women, who are transported to the United States for work as prostitutes, according to a threat assessment released by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The RCMP report says there is also sex-trade trafficking within Canada, and recent convictions have mostly involved victims who were Canadian citizens or had permanent resident status.
The report, which studied Canadian police investigations from 2005 to 2009, acknowledged that authorities are hampered by a lack of intelligence information and poor public awareness about the issue.
Identifying victims as they enter the country is difficult because many do not realize they will be exploited after they arrive, even if they know they are coming to work in the sex trade, the report said.
Traffickers use businesses such as escort services as fronts to hide their activities. Prostitution per se is not illegal in Canada, but it is illegal to live off the earnings of prostitution.
Human trafficking, which involves the transporting of people for the purpose of exploiting them, is illegal and the Canadian government announced last week it was planning to crack down on the crime.
The Internet is sometimes used to lure victims who are then kept under the trafficker's control by fears of reprisal or the victim's own drug addictions, investigators said.
Traffickers from Eastern Europe have taken advantage of the visa exemptions Canada has granted some countries, and will use fraudulent documents from them to ease transporting women across the border.
Israel, Estonia, Latvia and Korea are among the countries whose passports have been exploited by traffickers bringing foreign nationals into Canada for sex-trade work, according to the RCMP's analysis.
"The different visa requirements for entry into Canada and the U.S. may result in migrants legally entering Canada with visa-exempt status and then seeking to illegally enter the U.S.," the report also said.
Sex-trade traffickers also recruit women within Canada.
A majority of Asian sex-trade workers found in Canadian bawdy houses raided by the police had entered the country using visitor or student visas, some of which had expired, the report said.
Investigators said they have evidence of Canadian women being trafficked to U.S. cities such as Las Vegas, but have not determined yet if a specific criminal network is responsible.
Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson