Human trafficking: the hidden pandemic

Social isolation related to the COVID-19 pandemic may be leaving more people vulnerable to human trafficking, a criminal activity in which human beings are treated as possessions to be controlled and coerced for prostitution, forced labour or other forms of exploitation.

Eleanor Stewart, a clinical ethicist with Covenant Health who has worked extensively to combat human trafficking, worries children may be more vulnerable due to increased online learning. 

“Many children are being schooled online and will be spending a lot of time in front of a computer. They may be looking for a distraction and visit other sites, and they may not be supervised by their parents, who trust they are doing schoolwork,” she says. 

Alberta places third for the highest police-reported cases of human trafficking in the country. According to Statistics Canada, there were 107 reported human trafficking cases in Alberta from 2009 to 2018. Ontario led the way with 1,166, and Quebec had 224 cases. 

But Eleanor says those numbers may not reflect reality. “Human trafficking is difficult to measure. The victims are vulnerable. They may be unable or unwilling to report the crime to police, and they may also have language barriers.”

Also troubling is that 80 per cent of victims who have been assisted say they had contact with a healthcare provider during the time they were trafficked, according to non-governmental organization Polaris, which has been working to combat human trafficking in North America. 

According to Const. Kristin Appleton of the RCMP’s KARE Counter Exploitation Unit, K Division, income made from sex trafficking can be very lucrative. “In some ways, it can even be more lucrative than drug trafficking,” she says.

Kristin explains that when drugs like cocaine are purchased and used, that commodity is gone. Victims of sex trafficking can be sold over and over again and make up to $300 an hour, or $2,100 for seven “dates” in one day.

Eleanor believes Covenant Health is in a position to do something about it. As the lead for Covenant’s Human Trafficking Working Group, she and the group’s members have been collaborating with local stakeholders and international organizations to help suspected victims of human trafficking who may present at Covenant facilities. 

“People think of it as happening somewhere else, but it’s here, in our province, in our city, that people are being turned into cheap commodities.”

She explains that where there’s economic breakdown, there’s also an increase in illegal activity. And human trafficking can occur anywhere. People trafficked for sex and labour may work in legal businesses such as construction, agriculture, retail, hospitality or food and beverage or in services provided by nail salons. Nannies and caregivers who work within their employers’ homes are also vulnerable.

“It’s a horrible thing to happen when someone who’s vulnerable gets turned into a commodity and has their humanity stripped from them. We have to reach out to these people as they are often the ones who have no voice or are silent,” says Eleanor. 

Thanks to Eleanor's passion for fighting human trafficking, Covenant Health began a partnership with the Action Coalition on Human Trafficking (ACT) Alberta in 2016 to increase awareness among Covenant staff across the province. 

Regular training presentations and an online module equip staff in the emergency, obstetrics and gynecology departments with vital information that helps them identify red flags and follow a response protocol.

Eleanor says that victims of sex trafficking and labour trafficking present quite differently, the latter being harder to detect. For example, the common signs of someone who is exploited at work are overuse injuries and injuries from working in unsafe conditions due to lack of safety equipment. These types of injuries are more challenging for clinicians to diagnose. 

Victims of sex trafficking, on the other hand, may come in with specific injuries to their genital area, may make multiple visits to treat a sexually transmitted infection or may have repeated abortions. They may also have body tattoos as a form of “branding” by their trafficker. 

Candice Keddie, interim senior director of operations at the Misericordia Community Hospital, says all presenting patients at triage are assessed by a screening tool that asks a standard list of questions (including those related to trafficking), and staff are trained to provide non-violent crisis intervention where appropriate.

The hospital has also been doing proactive outreach to the primary demographic that is vulnerable to sex trafficking — teenagers between 13 and 15 years old. Its P.A.R.T.Y. (Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth) program has been raising awareness among Grade 9 students about the consequences of risk-taking behaviours for three decades. The program has also recently partnered with Eleanor’s working group to address concerns around sex trafficking. 

Program coordinator Marcia Lee says this is delivered through presentations with an optional segment on human trafficking. The program reaches 4,500 students each year. She says students are surprised when they learn human trafficking is happening in Alberta. “They think it’s only about people being brought in from another country. They tend to be very surprised to hear about this here, which means they are not well-quipped to recognize it or deal with it if someone began luring them in.”

In her three years with the counter exploitation unit, Kristin says she has seen many 14- to 16-year-old sex trafficking victims.

“The pimps like to prey on youth because the younger they are, the easier they will be to control.”

She adds that many of the victims also have a history of being a runaway, which makes them even more vulnerable. “The pimps are very skilled at finding their victims. It can happen in shopping malls. It can happen anywhere.”   

For Eleanor, that’s all the more reason to continue to build awareness, especially in schools, among other vulnerable populations and in the community at large. 

“We need to recognize that this is a phenomenon. Human trafficking is the second fastest growing illegal industry in the world after drug trafficking. Traffickers don’t have to abduct an individual. They just need to create a very threatening [online] environment.” 

Where to get help:

RCMP Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre (HTNCC): 1.855.850.4640

Canadian National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1.833.900.1010

Alberta’s One Line for Sexual Violence: 1.866.403.8000 (call or text)



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