Human trafficking in Ontario cities looks more like an intimate relationship than many believe.

Nicky Carswell, an anti-human trafficking support worker with the Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC) of Waterloo Region said and 69 per cent of the country’s human trafficking cases happen in rural Ontario and cities along major highways, like Waterloo.

Most victims of human trafficking are recruited through the ‘boyfriend or Romeo effect.’

A trafficker targets a woman, by gaining her trust and affection and then manipulates her into doing things­—many times sexual acts— she’s uncomfortable with.

“By the time she realizes this isn’t actually a relationship, it’s too late and she doesn’t have a safe way to get out,” Carswell said.

“A pimp gains trust because she thinks she’s in love. He uses love and trust and exploits her later on in relationship.”

A lot of these women who are recruited this way don’t even realize they’re being trafficked.

Victims of human trafficking and their parents now have many places to turn to for help.

The Ontario government announced the launch of a new, province-wide program designed to help victims and their families with free legal support.

Students are at risk because they may have moved to the city and are isolated from friends and family.

In 2015, local police reported 27 cases of human trafficking in the region, 26 of those sex trafficking.

Many victims don’t reach out to the criminal justice system, so the numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

“University and college students are absolutely a target [for human trafficking]. They may be new to the area, might not have a lot of friends, could have a large financial debt, could be starting to go out more, meet new people, and might not be aware of the possibility of being sexual exploited,” Carswell said.

“The region’s proximity to the 401 makes it a target.”

Carswell said women from the ages of about 14 to 25 of all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds are at risk, but many victims are marginalized and isolation from friends and family makes people vulnerable.

Yasir Naqvi, Attorney General, said the program is the first of its kind in Canada and that the province is committed to victims and their family members.

“Human trafficking has a devastating impact on survivors and their families. We are committed to ensuring people in Ontario have the support and legal options they need to protect themselves as they rebuild their lives. Free legal representation is an important step in this journey for survivors to have peace of mind,” he said.

The program came into effect May 1 making a team of specialized lawyers available to survivors of human trafficking and those at risk of human trafficking to get restraining orders by giving free legal advice, help completing applications, and free representation at application hearing in any Ontario Court of Justice.

The legal help is also provided to parents of victims.

Tessa McFadzean, chair of Hamilton Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition said the service will help people navigate a complex system in a time of emotional distress.

“Navigating the complexities of the legal system can be quite challenging particularly for survivors experiencing significant trauma and fear. Specialized legal representation for human trafficking survivors will help reduce systemic barriers by improving access to critical services that were not previously available.”

The program is available everywhere in Ontario by phone or in person.

To access the services, eligible individuals can call Ontario’s dedicated confidential Human Trafficking Helpline at 1-833-999-9211.

Michael Coteau, minister of community and social services, said the government is trying to work with front-line workers to provide necessary supports.

“We have heard from our partners on the front-lines that traffickers often pursue survivors when they try to leave and seek safety. This new program will make an important difference in the lives of those being targeted and their families, by providing meaningful legal recourse to use against those who seek to exploit them.”

The province has also introduced a new type of restraining order, a human trafficking-specific restraining order, created under the Anti-Human Trafficking Act. It’s meant to help protect survivors and the safety of those around them. Victims are not required to notify the trafficker in advance, as was previously the case.

Harinder Malhi, minister of the status of women, said access to these services is essential.

“It is critical that survivors of human trafficking have access to the services and support that they need. This program ensures that individuals in every community can access free and confidential legal advice, no matter where they are in the province.”

The Waterloo program offers short or long-term counselling, legal help, assistance with finding housing and safety planning to those at risk of experiencing, have experienced, or are currently experiencing sexual exploitation in the Waterloo region. The free and confidential service will also be tailored to clients’ needs. Carswell said the program has operated for four months and in that time she has had 35 referrals and 16 regular clients.

“It’s definitely happening. It’s much more common than we think. We just now recognizing it better,” she said.

Those seeking assistance can reach the program directly during business hours at 519-571-0121 x111, through the 24-hour hotline at 519-741-8633 or by email at ahtp@sascwr.org.

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