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New USask human trafficking study asks for sweeping system changes

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New USask human trafficking study asks for sweeping system changes
According to a new study, women and girls in remote and rural areas are most likely to be victims of human trafficking. Researchers say social systems lead women to vulnerability.

Human trafficking is often thought of as an international crime. A new study by researchers from the University of Saskatchewan shows that human trafficking in Canada is mainly a domestic problem.

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The study shows Indigenous, women and girls in remote and rural areas are most likely to be victims of human trafficking, something also borne out in the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).

Manuela Valle-Castro, research coordinator of the study, explains what makes Indigenous women more vulnerable.

“We see that it is often the lack of housing and safe transportation, that makes women and girls vulnerable to human trafficking. The communities that have been devastated by extractive projects, like foster care or incarceration, are most affected by this.”

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In the study, lack of housing, no means of safe transportation and too many incarcerations of victims were identified as elements that contribute to the ongoing problems around human trafficking.

Valle-Castro says that governments who really care about stopping human trafficking should focus on providing social housing and safe public transportation for women and stop incarcerating victims.

RCMP responded to this, saying that they always take a victim-based approach and that they avoid incarcerating known victims of human trafficking.

“When, for example, two young women are found in the back of a truck in rural Alberta, there is an entire trail of failed systems that did not provide them with safety. The actual circumstances that push these women into their situation are often far worse than anyone can imagine.”

She added that women do not fall prey to human trafficking because they lack moral character or intelligence. According to Valle-Castro, it is the social systems that lead these women to vulnerability.

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Joeline Magill, executive director of Hope Restored Canada, runs an organization that helps women who were trafficked get their lives back on track. Her organization has a safe house that helps, on average, 25 women leave their situation each year and their programs help reach at least 100 women each year.

She explains that one of the big problems with human trafficking is that it is often hidden behind different criminal activities. This also makes it difficult to find statistics on how widespread the problem actually is.

“Some of the reasons why it is hard to find solid numbers on this, is that the statistics show up as something different. The crime is not registered as ‘human trafficking’, but it shows up as a domestic violence case, prostitution, or fraud.”

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Calls for police task force on human trafficking

According to Magill, human trafficking is characterized by the control that is exerted over the victim. There are several things family and friends of victims can look out for.

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“Red flags to us are, if somebody is always accompanied to their appointments or when somebody who previously didn’t have the financial means for food, nice clothes, hair and nails, now suddenly has. People might disappear for periods of time or show signs of physical abuse. Those things can indicate that somebody else is in control of that person.”

RCMP officer Glenn Church of the Saskatchewan Trafficking Response Team (STRT) added that a lot of grooming for human trafficking happens online.

“The victims themselves often don’t realize what is happening until it is too late, because the grooming process can go on for quite a long time. Typically, someone is involved in, what they think, is a legitimate online relationship that could last many months or even years. Over time that slowly turns into a situation where they’re trafficked for sexual purposes.”

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Putting an actual stop to the crime has proven difficult.

“The groups that are involved in trafficking don’t respect provincial borders, so groups that are operating on the East Coast are also on the West Coast and all parts in between. They are transient in nature, and they can move long distances in short periods of time. That makes it difficult from a jurisdictional perspective for us to apprehend them,” Church says.

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To better fight against human trafficking, the Saskatchewan RCMP is coordinating with other branches and municipal police forces in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

“We use specialized techniques to target the groups that are involved in trafficking because the crime can be so sophisticated.”

The fight against human trafficking is an ongoing struggle, but by providing housing, safe transportation and specialized police work, women in rural communities will have better chances to protect themselves from being victimized.

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