Governments have been urging us to shelter at home to stop the spread of COVID-19. For the most vulnerable people that’s a challenge. But it's also an opportunity for human sex traffickers.
COVID-19 has slowed down much of the economy, but in the realm of illegal activities, sex trafficking has not decreased, as the pandemic has made “vulnerable people more vulnerable and more susceptible, if they’re not already being trafficked, to being trafficked,” said Karly Church, a survivor herself.
Church is now a human trafficking crisis intervention counselor with Victim Services of Durham Region, a victim support center east of Toronto.
On top of that, the pandemic has made reaching out to trafficking victims even more challenging.
“Before COVID-19, I was able to do a lot of proactive work where we would go meet with individuals in hotels, where police would clear the room and then I would go in and offer support,” explained Church, who also works in collaboration with the Durham Regional Police Service Human Trafficking Unit. “That, we haven’t been able to do that at this point.”
The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline also says they’ve had a steady number of calls even once the lockdown started. Something else has transpired in those calls.
“Some survivors have expressed that social distancing and quarantine measures, or self-isolation measures, are extremely triggering to them, to be told where to go and wear a mask and things like that,” says Ashley Franssen-Tingley, Director of Stakeholder Relations of the Canadian Center to End Human Trafficking.
Those are things that can trigger memories about the victims’ trafficking situation, as they are often told what to wear and where to go at all times.
Another consequence of the lockdown is that young people have been more online, putting them at risk of online traffickers.
“It’s easier for traffickers to sit behind a computer screen and actually reach out to multiple people, hoping that one or two bite,” says Church.
While it is still early to get the full picture of how the lockdown has affected online child exploitation, “chatter in dark web forums indicate that offenders see the pandemic as an opportunity to commit more offences against children,” says a spokesperson for the Royal Mounted Canadian Police.
“Newest data is coming from Alberta and they’ve seen over 50% increase in (online) child exploitation since March and expecting those numbers to continue,” says Kayla Yama, clinical director of Victim Services of Durham Region.
That is significant, considering online child exploitation includes luring and grooming, and that a quarter of all human trafficking victims are under the age of 18.
“Because traffickers are looking for people that are vulnerable,” continues Yama. “This might be somebody’s first experience. Many people identify their traffickers as their boyfriend.”
Most sex trafficking – unlike labor trafficking – is domestic. It is less risky for traffickers to lure vulnerable people from their own community rather than crossing guarded international borders. But it is different for the Johns, according to Franssen-Tingley.
“What we are hearing anecdotally is that because of the difference in our federal laws around sex work in Canada, that there is much more a focus on prosecuting traffickers than there is on sex buyers," she said. "So we do hear that sex buyers are crossing the border coming into Canada, more so than we hear victims are being moved across the border south.”
This is not currently happening due to the closing of the border between the U.S. and Canada.
While tourists are not allowed to cross the border at the moment, truck drivers are still working – and are part of the fight against sex trafficking. This is thanks to the American organization Truckers Against Trafficking, which trains truckers to recognize the signs of human trafficking. They were recently able to expand to Canada.
"Because we know that drivers are crossing those international borders, so we want, wherever they may be, to have that easy number to call to report this crime,” says Director of Coalition Builds Esther Goetsch.
Their in-person training and events have been impacted by the pandemic, but they are still providing online training and videos, free of access for all.
“We want people to be looking for those individuals that may be frightful, not making eye contact," she said. "If they’re not in control of their own identification, or someone else is holding their identification and answering for them, those are all going to be indicators.”
Since the organization began 10 years ago, close to 2,500 calls have been made by truckers to the U.S. national human trafficking hotline, helping identify over a thousand victims.
“When we’re out there training industry professionals and law enforcement,” says Goetsch, “we hear that same refrain all the time, of ‘now I know what I was looking at, now I know what to do’.”
To get help or report a tip, the number for the national human trafficking hotline is 1-888-373-7888 in the U.S. and 1-833-900-1010 in Canada.