Advocates in the fight against human trafficking say the financial hardship and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic have helped perpetrators find new targets.
“Traffickers are taking advantage of this time where vulnerable people are at home and online and that really makes our work feel much more urgent,” said country music star Paul Brandt, who has been leading a committee to help guide Alberta’s fight against the crime for almost a year.
Brandt, a former pediatric nurse, founded the organization Not in My City in 2017 with his wife Liz to raise awareness and bring together those fighting exploitation.
Julia Drydyk, executive director of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, said while more data is needed to assess pandemic’s total impact, it’s clear human traffickers have adjusted their tactics.
“In addition to looking for and identifying individuals in the real-world community spaces — outside schools, even in homeless shelters — we’re also seeing an increase in the use of social media for people to identify, lure and groom individuals.”
The group recently published a report — based largely on interviews with law enforcement and non-governmental organizations — that suggests there’s a growing trend of sex traffickers moving young women from Quebec who speak little or no English to Alberta.
Traffickers who would have flown victims between provinces before the pandemic are transporting them by car, which makes it easier to stay under the radar, Drydyk said.
Despite the pandemic, resources remain available to survivors, she said, including the centre’s 24-7 phone and chat hotline.
Drydyk said her group wants to see law enforcement agencies work more closely across jurisdictions and for government to provide sustainable and adequate funding for reliable services for survivors.
Alberta RCMP Const. Kristin Appleton said traffickers haven’t slowed down during the pandemic from what she can tell.
“The reason being, it’s all about the profits they’re making.”
People who have lost jobs and don’t qualify for government benefits have become more vulnerable, as have youth who have been spending more time online.
“These traffickers will basically troll any of these sites and if somebody says, ‘Today I’m not feeling so pretty,’ they’ll start chatting and before you know it, they have a friend and this friend grooms them.”
Appleton would like to see more resources for law enforcement and for young people to learn about human trafficking in school so they know the warning signs.
ACT Alberta, which provides front-line support to human trafficking survivors, saw a steep dive in referrals at the beginning of the pandemic, said interim executive director Jessica Brandon.
“Likely people were getting stuck in a place with their trafficker,” she said. “The ability to be alone and come forward or self-refer or even just the ability to call law enforcement was essentially zero.”
Calls have since ramped back up. Since virtual intakes often aren’t feasible with traffickers looming nearby, the group has added pandemic safety protocols to help survivors in person.
Brandon said ACT came before the Alberta committee this summer with a plea that labour trafficking — where mainly foreign workers are funnelled into jobs through force, fraud or coercion — be treated as seriously as sex trafficking.
Often one leads to the other, especially for women, she said.
Brandt said the provincial panel has been meeting twice a month. It has heard from 90 presenters from law enforcement, government, front-line agencies and “pretty much everybody who has an opinion about human trafficking.”
The group has also heard from eight individuals about their personal experience and there was a recent video conference with deputy ministers from eight different government departments.
“I went through each of the ministries and I explained the intersections between their specific ministry and human trafficking,” Brandt said.
Alberta Justice spokesman Ian Roddick said representatives from nine ministries have formed a working group on human trafficking that meets regularly.
The government is reviewing resources available to fight it and support survivors, but the pandemic has made it tough to pin down a timeline.
The panel hopes to issue recommendations soon after that review is done, Brandt said.
“We want to make sure that these recommendations are backed up by a true picture of what’s happening here in the province.”
The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-833-900-1010
ACT Alberta for Edmonton and northern Alberta: 780-218-5815
Act Alberta for Calgary and southern Alberta: 587-585-5236