'Astounding numbers': 75 sex trafficking investigations reveal tip of the iceberg

The Waterloo Regional Police Service says investigators have been involved with 75 cases this year. Still, advocates and police agree that much of sex trafficking goes unreported.

Waterloo Regional Police Service investigators involved in over 75 cases so far this year

The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking hopes their new trafficking hotline will serve as a better way of collecting national data on trafficking. (Credit: Getty Images)

Waterloo Regional Police Service's human sex trafficking unit has been busy this year — with more than 75 investigations since January. That's according to newly revealed numbers from the service.

The investigations range from identifying and finding vulnerable escorts, to responding to calls from CrimeStoppers and the public, to investigating traffickers and helping victims find support.

Despite the dozens of current cases on the go, both police officers and people who work with victims agree that trafficking reported to police doesn't paint a full picture of how serious the problem is in Waterloo region.

"I would say absolutely it's underreported," said an officer with the WRPS, whose name CBC is withholding because he works in covert investigations.

He said traffickers often deliberately try to make their victims feel afraid of police. 

"There is a huge distrust of us, [and] it's an uphill battle during our investigations when it comes to getting victims to open up and tell their stories," he said.

The work is time-consuming, and a single investigation can take years from start to finish, police said in an email.

At the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, anti-human trafficking program coordinator Nicky Carswell ​​​​​said there are many reasons why victims hesitate to come forward to police.

Some girls who've been trafficked have also committed crimes with their traffickers, Carswell said. Many of them have been isolated from friends and family.

Others might feel they are in love with their traffickers or have been manipulated to believe they are not being trafficked.

And then, she said, there's the fear.

"Fear from the trafficker, fear from what people will think of them," said Carswell. "Often they're threatened. Fear for their families. There's lots of reasons that they don't report to police."

'Astounding numbers'

Police-reported data is just "the tip of the iceberg" of trafficking in Canada, according to Ashley Franssen-Tingley who's with the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking. 

"We know the victims and survivors typically choose to access supports and services through social service agencies," said Franssen-Tingley. "It's very infrequently that they are going to police."

Carswell said her phone has been ringing off the hook.

Nicky Carswell, anti-human trafficking coordinator with the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, agrees that "a lot" of sex trafficking goes unreported. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Since the anti-human trafficking program began in January 2018, it has received 250 calls and 160 referrals. Carswell said she and her colleague have helped just shy of 100 people.

"We are very, very busy, and the referrals just continue to come in in astounding numbers," said Carswell.

Policy-makers need better numbers

Franssen-Tingley said better, more solid evidence about the nature of human trafficking in Canada is necessary to persuade policy-makers to spend money to address it. 

She said it doesn't make sense to advocate for more funding for police and service providers without having the numbers to back it up.

"We really need that data to identify those hotspots and identify where the supports and services need to go," she said.

More broadly, Franssen-Tingley said strong evidence is also needed for public education. She said many people still think trafficking involves people from other countries being brought into Canada — something she said simply isn't true.

National barriers to data collection

Getting a clear picture of how many people are victims of trafficking in Waterloo region is difficult. That problem is one other jurisdictions are having as well.

"Human trafficking is difficult to measure, due in part to its hidden nature," reads an excerpt from a 2018 Statistics Canada report on trafficking.

According to Statistics Canada, there were seven victims of police-reported human trafficking in Kitchener – Cambridge – Waterloo in 2018, six victims in 2017 and five victims in 2016.

Those numbers are much lower than the dozens of investigations police have underway, and the hundreds of calls the sexual assault centre is getting.

A human trafficking investigator with the Waterloo Regional Police Service sits with his hands folded. He says traffickers tell their victims that police won't believe them, which can lead to underreporting of the crime. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Going forward, Franssen-Tingley hopes the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking's new national trafficking hotline will help make track the issue more accurately.

The hotline was launched in May 2019 and accepts calls from trafficking victims and survivors as well as members of the public.

"We're really hoping through having a national hotline that acts as a national referral mechanism, we can try to centralize the data and try to get a real a much better picture of how trafficking operates in this country," she said.

In the time that the hotline has been operational, it has received "substantial calls," a spokesperson said in an email, although they declined to give exact numbers.

The hotline plans to release statistical reports on an annual basis, and to share their information with Statistics Canada.

"We're really hoping ... to get a much better picture of how trafficking operates in this country, and where the hotspots are and what the trends are and where the networks are operating, to really try and disrupt trafficking at its core," said Franssen-Tingley.