'Massive increase' in human trafficking cases reported, says Alberta agency
'We are seeing a consistent on average doubling of victims being referred to us every year'
An Alberta group that works to fight human trafficking says there has been a "massive increase" in the number of cases reported and frontline healthcare workers could be key in identifying victims.
Andrea Burkhart is the executive director at ACT Alberta.
She says in the eight years the organization has existed, the number of cases reported have exploded.
"We are seeing a massive increase, a fairly significant trend over the last number of years has been an increase in referrals and reports to our organization," Burkhart tells CBC News.
"We are seeing a consistent on average doubling of victims being referred to us every year."
Burkhart says education and awareness are behind those increased numbers and a recent partnership with Alberta Health Services could be helpful in getting more victims to come forward.
"Healthcare providers are in a unique position to identify trafficking because they are able to form trust, to have confidential conversations with potential victims," Burkhart said.
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"Much like domestic violence, people who are trafficked often are not coming forward and revealing that upon first meeting them."
In question period at the Alberta legislature on Thursday, Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said the province will "continue to work with front-line services to ensure these people have the protection they need."
Burkhart said there are some common denominators healthcare workers like nurses can look for.
"[If] people are not in control of their documents, if they are not permitted to speak for themselves, if they have somebody who seems to be a handler who is answering questions for them or appears to be controlling them, that can be extremely subtle."
Aboriginal woman disproportionately impacted
Burkhart said it's a complex issue that affects a variety of people, but there are trends in Canadian cases.
"What is most often reported is sex trafficking, that comprises about 55 or 60 per cent of the cases that we see … about 40 per cent of our cases have components of labour trafficking, so either solely labour trafficking or labour and sex trafficking happening concurrently," Burkhart said.
"We see this issue disproportionately impacting aboriginal women. About 20 per cent of sex trafficking cases are aboriginal women."
Hundreds of charges, dozens of convictions
Since 2008, there have been 330 human trafficking charges laid in Canada with 22 in Alberta. Nationally of those 330 cases, 38 convictions resulted. Alberta conviction rates are not available.
Burkhart said, however, many cases go unreported.
"There is no one victim typology other than the fact that every client we have worked with over the eight years we have been doing this work, every single one of them has had a hope for a better future," she said.
"That has been exploited by somebody who sees an economic benefit coming to them for that exploitation."
Ganley said it's essential to have more than just police on board to tackle the problem.
"In addition to having the correct law enforcement measures in place we need to continue to invest in front-line services, in human services, in health care and mental health care to ensure people aren't vulnerable to these sorts of things," she said.
With files from Sarah Lawrynuik