More education along with a broad increase in support services are needed to help victims of human trafficking, participants at a community workshop on human trafficking heard last week.
A lack of criminal convictions locally doesn’t mean human trafficking isn’t taking place in Abbotsford, Jassy Bindra, the RCMP’s human trafficking co-ordinator, told participants from a range of service agencies and community organizations at the workshop, which was held over two days.
Although dozens of convictions have been obtained in Ontario and Quebec, British Columbia has only seen one human trafficking conviction under the criminal code.
Trafficking sometimes occurs where people who are brought into Canada from out of the country, often legally, are coerced into working in poor conditions. But most of the trafficking and human exploitation that goes on in Canada revolves around prostitution, often of very young girls beholden to older men.
“Our own children can be victims of trafficking as well,” Bindra said.
During Bindra’s presentation on Thursday, two of those attending the workshop noted that they had encountered suspected trafficking cases locally. Victims sought help to get out of their situation, but declined to speak to police.
It can be difficult to prove individual situations meet the precise definition of trafficking outlined in the criminal code, Bindra noted.
Addressing trafficking, though, goes far beyond whether or not criminal charges can be laid.
Speaking on a panel alongside representatives of three local service agencies, Abbotsford Police Sgt. Casey Vinet said much of the work that is done on helping exploited men, women and youth is done with the assistance of community groups who have close relationships with those at risk of being exploited.
Joyce McEloes of Cyrus Centre, who appeared alongside Vinet on the panel, said Abbotsford has “some great things that are happening,” surrounding services being offered to at-risk youth.
But all those on the panel – which also featured Christina Henderson of the Youth Resource Centre and Palwinder Kelay of Abbotsford Community Services’ South Asian Community Resource Centre – said efforts to stop the exploitation of women must be broad.
“There are many major gaps in the system that are necessary to fix,” Henderson said. Vinet noted that if an initiative at one organization leads to the discovery of more victims of suspected human trafficking, that creates a “ripple effect” that increases demand for services in other areas.
The workshop also featured several calls for an immediate increase in both the amount of low-barrier housing offered in Abbotsford, and available mental health resources.
Henderson said society would also be helped by more programs for offenders to prevent exploitation from beginning in the first place.
The workshop, which was hosted by Abbotsford Community Services, hoped to acquaint local service providers with what is human trafficking, and what can be done to stop it and help those affected.
Gugan Sidhu, who helped organize the workshop, said it’s important for those who might come across victims of trafficking to recognize the signs and know how to help.
“When we think about human trafficking …. it seems like something that is far away,” she said. “But if you look at this, it’s happening in all of our communities.”
Abbotsford Police Const. Ian MacDonald told The News that while human trafficking is not an “everyday occurrence” in the community, officers aren’t “naive enough to think it doesn’t happen.”
He agreed that many incidents of human trafficking – which most often involve forcing women into the sex trade – go highly unreported, due to fear on the part of the victims.
Abbotsford’s proximity to the border and presence of gangs and organized crime make it an area where such crimes are likely to exist.
“(Gangs) see drugs as a commodity, and they see people as a commodity. Whatever is going to make them the biggest amount of money is where they’re going to go,” MacDonald said.
He said it is difficult for the victims of human trafficking to come forward because they are fearful of repercussions from the people controlling them.
Their lives, or the lives of their loved ones, are often threatened or they are told they will be deported or arrested.