exploitation doesn't stop for a pandemic.

May 2020: What does COVID-19 mean to women currently being trafficked, or to survivors who are seeking services?

As an organization addressing human trafficking in Canada and beyond, we knew that COVID-19 would have devastating effects on trafficked women and girls*.

*Please note the following article refers to trafficked women and children in the sex trade, not consenting sex workers. As an organization, Aura Freedom supports sex trafficking survivors and therefore this article focuses on this form of trafficking. However, we acknowledge other forms of trafficking that continue in Canada during COVID-19 such as labour trafficking, domestic servitude, forced marriage and organ trafficking.  

Traffickers and exploiters don’t stop for a pandemic. Their goal is crystal clear: to make money upon the backs of vulnerable and marginalized people. Traffickers are also extremely creative when navigating new waters and adapt their businesses to flourish under any circumstances.

So, what does the COVID crisis mean for sex trafficking survivors in Toronto? 

While some organizations in Toronto are witnessing an eerie silence from human trafficking survivors, others have seen no change in the demand for their services. Those of us in the human trafficking sector know that the exploitation has not stopped. In fact, the increased isolation due to COVID-19 means that survivors are even more at risk of violence and youth are more vulnerable to being recruited and groomed online.

Anecdotally, accounts from our own team and from our community partners tell us that the sex trade has most likely seen a dip in business due to the risk of COVID infection, which often means more pressure and violence from traffickers if girls and women don’t make their quotas.

It also means that it’s more difficult for traffickers to recruit and groom new people, making it even harder for those already under the trafficker’s control to get away. For clients still purchasing sex despite the pandemic, trafficked persons do not have the luxury of being able to refuse them or screen them beforehand, resulting in a risk of infection.

Many hotels have shut down, which means that those who were being exploited in hotel rooms have been moved to hidden places like trap houses and are even more isolated. This could partly explain the silence. 

From the frontline, we know that emergency housing for survivors leaving exploitative situations is even harder to come by, and food insecurity is increasing. Trauma is also running high as the lockdown means survivors are more isolated than ever and sessions with support workers have changed format and frequency.  

Here are some accounts from a few of our fellow members of the Toronto Counter Human Trafficking Network, who are working on the ground in Toronto and beyond to support survivors of trafficking during this extremely difficult time. 

Melissa Compton – Human Trafficking Navigator at Native Child and Family Services of Toronto (Bekaadendang Project) “As an anti-human trafficking navigator during this time of COVID, I am seeing a lot of unknowns. Many of our clients are silent or not making contact. It’s very concerning. Many of our community members don’t have access to cell phones or even the Internet, so our efforts to reach out have been quite a struggle. The need for housing has been amplified and so trying to remove community members from very abusive situations has also been a struggle.

Culturally, although many knowledge-keepers have stepped up and are utilizing online platforms and doing phone appointments, most of our clients don’t have access to online forums. Moreover, those being exploited have someone who dictates what they can view, what they can participate in and when and how long they can use the phones.”

Michele Anderson – Human Trafficking Advocate at Covenant House Toronto
Covenant House has reported that the demand for their services has remained the same. Their case workers and advocates are working around the clock to support survivors (and their families) remotely and their human trafficking crisis beds are active. The demand for housing is at an all-time high and Covenant House is working with Toronto Public Health to ensure COVID-19 social distancing measures are adhered to in their facilities. 

Trafficking survivors who are pregnant are experiencing anxiety and fear as many hospital protocols have changed, including how many people can support mothers during labour.

One of the most troubling developments is the bail release of offenders due to COVID-19. Numerous dangerous offenders who have been accused of human trafficking and horrific violence are now out on bail, which is causing extreme distress and anxiety for the survivors they exploited. High-level safety planning is necessary in these cases, as well as moving survivors and constantly coordinating to keep them safe.

Luis Alberto Mata – FCJ Refugee Centre
“Labour trafficking and exploitation is still happening,” says Luis. “Migrant workers are key to guaranteeing food security in Ontario and other Canadian provinces. Thousands of workers with no immigration status continue working on farms, in factories and in cleaning services in very precarious conditions. That is why our migrant worker mobile project is still doing outreach.”

According to FCJ, many migrant workers are not being provided any safety measures with regards to COVID-19 and are at risk of infection.

Bridget Perrier – First Nations Survivor of Trafficking and Co-Founder of Sex Trade 101 
According to Bridget, women with addictions are having an extremely hard time. “Addictions don’t stop for a pandemic,” she says. “So, there is more dependence on traffickers and pimps who provide women with drugs and women who use drugs have fewer places to reach out to for support.”

Bridget says that traffickers will be using more violence as the women they exploit aren’t able to bring in the same amount of money due to the pandemic.
“Food security is currently an even bigger issue for survivors and gift cards for food are still a great way to support them. Access to housing was an issue before COVID-19, and now things are even worse. A survivor that I am supporting recently had no choice but to stay with her trafficker because there was just nowhere else to go.”

Bridget also brings up the important point that not all survivors are ok with staying in a hotel, as a lot of their exploitation happened in hotels. Therefore, service providers who are now using hotel rooms to house women must be aware of this and handle those cases accordingly.

Kathryn Gibbons – Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Services of Halton
“One of the primary concerns for survivors accessing our services has been securing forms of safe housing, especially for survivors who have recently exited correctional facilities. Additionally, for survivors who are living in shelters, many of the pandemic response measures that are necessary to combat the spread of COVID, like lockdown rules that ban folks from leaving the shelter, can be incredibly re-traumatizing for survivors of human trafficking as they recreate hyper-controlled environments. Due to the economic fallout surrounding COVID-19, access to food is also a primary concern.”

A Call to Action

As an organization, Aura Freedom would like to highlight that human rights must be guaranteed at all times for all people, especially the most marginalized and disenfranchised – who are more vulnerable during emergencies like pandemics.

To understand sex trafficking in a more simplistic manner, we need to first understand it as exploitation and a form of gender-based violence. Human trafficking is indeed a crime, but more importantly, it is a human rights abuse that thrives in conditions of inequity.

Therefore, in order to address human trafficking during COVID-19, governments must address the inequalities that exist on all levels that allow gender-based violence and sexual exploitation to continue and thrive.