Come Fall 2018 drivers traveling Canadian highways will have another tool to help in the fight against human trafficking.
The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking is launching a national hotline to connect callers with resources in an effort to end forced labor and sex work in throughout the country.
Barbara Gosse, CEO of the center, says the primary responsibility of the line will be to connect those who are being exploited to resources such as housing and social support to help them escape their current situation.
Call-takers will be equipped with information not only for local police departments, but shelters, abuse centers and other places where those being sold can go to be safe and get the counselling and support they need.
The hotline is just one step being taken from a list of recommendations provided by the Final Report of the National Task Force on Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada released in 2014. The report led to the founding of the center itself, and details measures to end the practice which Gosse says is more wide-spread than people might believe.
While researchers are just coming to understand the extent of the forced labor and sex trafficking markets, they do not yet have concrete numbers to show just how many people are trafficked in Canada – there is no national database to track these numbers.
Individual trafficking cases are handled by local police departments, so the number of rescued individuals or suspected traffickers arrested remains divided across the country. Gosse hopes the hotline will help bring those numbers together, consolidating cases and tips in one place, giving officials a better idea of the scale of the problem.
While the section reserved for the hotline on the center’s website still says “coming soon” people have been calling the Toronto number or emailing tips already. One tip lead to the recent rescue of four women in the Durham area – some of the girls involved were as young as 15.
“We know from law enforcement that the demand for younger and younger girls is increasing,” said Gosse. “I think these people that are buying younger and younger girls feel entitled to do it, and we need to end it. No one should be buying a 16-year-old or 15-year-old girl. Peel Regional Police and Toronto Police have found 13 year olds in hotel rooms.”
Teenaged girls are often an easy target for practiced predators because they are at a particularly vulnerable time in their life. Traffickers will groom girls by pretending to love them. That emotional bond often makes victims less likely to try to leave or report their abusers.
“This is called a low-risk high profit crime. It’s all about the money. They’re exploiting the most vulnerable for money.”
Gosse says for those on the road with keen eyes, victims can be spotted and information relayed to police. While young girls at motels or truck stops alone are a clear sign that something might be amiss, trafficked girls are often escorted everywhere they go so there is no chance to escape.
If drivers spot a girl out with someone who doesn’t look as though they could be a relative, it may indicate she is being trafficked.
Girls can also being controlled by cell phone, being told where to go and what to do by someone on the other end of the line.
Women and girls being forced into sex work are often subjected to frequent beatings and forced drug use. Drivers who spot girls with signs of physical abuse or drug use may be looking at a trafficked person.
Forced labor also plays a huge part in the human trafficking market. From the line cook at a small dinner to the nanny at the next table, those forced into labor are frequently hired from other countries to work one job, and then are forced to work another job when they arrive. Alternatively they can be told they owe money to their traffickers and are forced to work for low or no wages until the debt is paid.
Exploited laborers often have their passports are confiscated. The lack of freedom of movement, or freedom to leave is key in identifying a person who may be trafficked or subject to labor exploitation.
Gosse says the comradery between truck drivers, and the willingness of fleets to promote this message to the people with their “eyes and ears on the ground” is remarkable. The organization also hopes to team up with oil companies, truck stops, and other groups like Truckers Against Trafficking in the U.S. to help spread the word, fund the hotline, and end the trafficking of people.
Tips are already proving helpful to rescuing those who are being exploited, but the way to end trafficking will be to stop the market for it, says Gosse.
Laws surrounding prostitution in Canada changed in 2014, with police departments being given discretion when it comes to charging women for participating in sex work. The law also made it clear that no such discretion exists when it comes to purchasers – it is illegal to buy a sexual service in Canada.
Sex work by underaged persons is also always illegal, and can land the purchaser on the sexual offender registry – even if they weren’t aware of the age of the person they were with at the time.
“What we really need to advocate for is a day when sex traffickers have no market to profit from human trafficking because no one is actually buying.”
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