If we know the signs, we can take action to support victims and deter sex traffickers.
By Sadiya Ansari
Kevin Porter has worked in hotels for 29 years, but it wasn’t until halfway through his career he became aware of sex trafficking at his workplace. When housekeepers there heard a young girl in a hotel room screaming that she was being held, they used their master key to enter the room, pinned down the pimp and called 911.
Often, signs of human trafficking aren’t as obvious. But if we all learn what to look for and are willing to take simple actions on our travels, at work and in our communities, we can help end this form of modern slavery.
What is sex trafficking?
“Being trafficked is something that can happen to anyone from any background, any social class,” says Chloe Foisy-Marquis, who works with victims of sex trafficking at Elizabeth Fry, a United Way–supported agency. “It’s incredibly common.”
Sex trafficking is forcing or coercing an individual into a commercial sexual act and falls under the umbrella of human trafficking. (It should not be confused with sex work, which is not coercive and is legal in Ontario.) Nearly 1,100 human trafficking-related incidents were reported across Canada between 2009 and 2016, although as authorities believe the majority of incidents go unreported, that’s likely just a fraction of what’s happening overall. Ninety-five percent of those victims identified as women, with Indigenous, LGBTQ+, homeless, youth in care, substance users and undocumented individuals overrepresented in the statistics. In Toronto and the GTA, trafficking is on the rise. Peel Regional Police report that they investigate over half of all Canadian trafficking cases, and in York Region, a single case resulted in 300 charges against 31 traffickers in fall 2019.
What can hotel staff and guests do about human trafficking?
Hotels are key human trafficking sites, but unfortunately, related training is not mandatory for Ontario hospitality workers. However, some industry leaders are taking ownership of the problem. Porter, for instance, created a program to educate his own staff at Toronto Don Valley Hotel & Suites, after taking a workshop with Toronto Police.
Observing behaviour at check-in, he points out, is critical. “It was very common that a male would arrive at the front desk and a female without any luggage would sit quietly somewhere near the front desk, within eye’s view of that individual because they were under their control,” Porter says. Another red flag is that a guest only wants to pay in cash. (Porter’s hotel now only accepts bank card payments.) Housekeeping staff may flag signs such as an excessive number of condom wrappers or used towels, and heavy traffic to a single room.
But most often it’s guests who report disturbances. Porter encourages travellers to trust their gut and report anything that feels off, such as seeing a young woman in distress, dressed to look older. The hotel can investigate without automatically breaking the door down.
Another proactive way guests can help is taking photos of their hotel room and uploading them to TraffickCam, a U.S.-based initiative and app. Traffickers frequently post photos taken in hotel rooms onto websites where they solicit clients. When travellers upload photos of every room they stay in, they help authorities identify the exact locations where sex trafficking is taking place—vital information for raids and arrests.
How meeting planners can use their clout to fight sex trafficking
After retiring in 2017, former meeting planner Sandy Biback founded Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking, a group of event planners who raise awareness about how to collaborate with venues and suppliers to combat human trafficking. She recently addressed the Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce ahead of Niagara hosting the Canada Games in 2021. “We know that any type of sports event like that brings out more traffickers,” she says.
Biback says meeting professionals can leverage their corporate dollars by encouraging tourism businesses to join The Code, a group whose mission is to prevent the sexual exploitation of children in tourism. The Code provides six steps for corporate social responsibility, including a commitment to training staff and educating travellers. Hotel chains such as Hilton, Novotel and Ramada are already members.
Healthcare services: A vital point of contact for human trafficking victims
Traffickers often isolate their victims. However, one rare opportunity victims have to be alone with an ally is at medical appointments. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has developed training on recognizing signs of trafficking and raising the topic with sensitivity. Any healthcare professional in Ontario can request access to the free course. Since the program’s launch in October 2018, more than 2,400 people have registered.
Healthcare workers can also look for red flags such as delayed access to care. Substance abuse problems are worrying, too—traffickers often use drugs to recruit and control victims. Also cause for concern are marks of physical abuse such as bruises, cuts, scars, branding or malnourishment, as well as sexually transmitted infections, misuse of contraception and signs of forced sex or unsafe abortions.
It’s crucial to build trust before broaching the subject, says Michael Weyman, who was part of the CAMH team that put together the course on human trafficking—especially since a victim may not even realize they’re being trafficked. “It is very important for a clinician not to impose a description about their situation but to listen and to allow them to maintain choice and autonomy in the clinical relationship,” he notes. The exception is when patients are under 16, in which case providers have a legal obligation to report.
Where to turn when you see signs close to home
Signs of sexual exploitation include a person becoming disconnected from family and old friends while spending time with new friends who control what they are doing, or with a new love interest who is significantly older. At times victims might seem flush with cash, but later they may have no access to money or even to their own identification documents. They may also be secretive and defensive about where they’re going. Other signs to watch for include substance abuse, a decline in mental health, skipping school and going to places that are age-inappropriate.
Often family members and friends spot signs that something’s not quite right, but they might not automatically realize their loved one is being trafficked. Girls and women can become victims gradually as a relationship with a new “boyfriend” intensifies. When there isn’t anything clear to report, there are still things you can do to support a suspected victim.
The Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking recommends that parents keep an ongoing open dialogue with their children about sex trafficking, like discussing peer-recruitment techniques and the grooming tactics predators may use. (Common tactics include reaching out on social media and trying to boost their self-esteem, before escalating to a “relationship” and meeting up.) Parents should insist on having access to their kids’ social media and electronic device passwords.
The organization launched The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline to take tips, answer questions and provide resources for trafficking victims and their families. “No one should hesitate to call in,” says CEO Barbara Gosse. “We all have neighbours, we all have family members who could potentially be victims of human trafficking, and we should be vigilant and know the signs.”
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