If you think human trafficking isn’t happening in the Quinte region, think again.
“It’s happening in every single hotel, said survivor Simone Bell speaking to the need to train hotel staff globally. “Where there is sex work there is human trafficking.”
With 45.8 million victims worldwide, human trafficking has become a $150 billion industry and it’s happening here behind closed doors in the Quinte area. In 2015, two sentences for human trafficking were handed down in Belleville to two parties (man and woman) and in Quinte West there have been charges laid too. A Quinte West man was charged earlier this month after two young girls reported being trafficked in Kingston and Port Hope. In 2014, 90% of human trafficking victims were females, most commonly 17 years of age.
But those are just the incidents forced out into the light. Bell said it’s a crime that can’t be measured and rarely sees convictions because victims are too terrified to come forward against their abusers, often traumatized, blackmailed, exploited and addicted to drugs. A recent ‘Saving the Girl Next Door’ bill proposed by Conservative MPP Laurie Scott hopes to make it easier for victims of human trafficking to get restraining orders against their abusers and sue their pimps for damages.
Bell explained the most vulnerable pushed into the sex trade industry are youth, victims of abuse, indigenous people and the LGBTQ+ community. She said human traffickers are seeking out youth online looking for profile pictures that display insecurity or status updates that reveal things like a fight with parents or friends.
“A human trafficker preys on your vulnerability,”explained Bell recalling her horrifying and haunting story of being forced into the sex trade at 21-years-old. “They take something you hold nearest and dearest to you and hold it over you. My family was my vulnerability.
At 21 and unbeknownst to her, Bell dated the wrong man while living in Kanata who was arrested for gun possession. It would be her boyfriend’s arms dealer who came to her and forced her to make good on an ‘astronomical debt,’ threatening to harm her family.
To a room of 240 human trafficking workshop attendees, Bell, now 31, said she was held captive, robbed of her identification, bank and credit cards, stripped of all social media passwords, drugged, gang raped, abused, photographed, exploited and sold for sex to men from Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and Niagara for four grueling years. With nothing but the shirt on her back, Bell ultimately fled her captor. The Thursday workshop hosted by the Quinte Coordinating Committee Against Violence on Human Trafficking was aimed at education. Police officers, healthcare providers, addictions and mental health workers, the Children’s Aid Society, educators, hotel staffers and the public gathered in Belleville to learn about ways to bridge the gaps in response, techniques and outreach methods to ensure that survivors are supported in the safety net of care.
Det. Ann Earle-Dempsey, who sits on the committee said ‘it’s happening in our area’ and now that it’s out in the open and out front, the agencies need to decide how they are going to handle it best.
“We need to educate our kids and parents because they (human traffickers) are recruiting kids 12, 13 and 14-years-old,” said Earle-Dempsey. “Front line officers need to be trained because they are the ones going to the hotels, because there is a suspicious person.”
Kat Anstasiou, a clinician for the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault program at Quinte Healthcare is on the front lines helping victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence.
Anstasiou who also doubles as a triage nurse admitted there have been quite a few human trafficking victims that have come from Belleville and Quinte West. She said the centre hasn’t been directly in contact with the victims that have been reported in the news. However she did refer to approximately 10 victims they’ve seen this year that didn’t disclose human trafficking or necessarily realize they were apart of it.
“It’s an ‘I’m from Kingston’ or ‘I’m from Toronto’, or ‘I was from Picton but I ended up at a guy’s house in Trenton and he’s been using me and having me pay for my drugs by sleeping with his friends,'” revealed Anstasiou. “They don’t realize they are a victim of human trafficking until you’ve got one of us sitting there like ‘this is what might have been happening to you, how can we help, what are you ready for?'”
Bell who is now actively involved in the design and delivery of victim support services and peer mentoring to survivors of human trafficking through Roos-Remillard Consulting Services and Project Hope pointed to a world of stigma that still exists around the crime.
She said victims can be anyone from ‘your daughter to your son’ and perpetrators can be anyone male, female, even those who appear to be good standing citizens. She also referred to a website called backpage.com (which Belleville is listed on) making it easy to find which hotels people are being trafficked out of.
“When you think about prostitution – people say ‘Lady of the Night,’ Bell informed. “That’s not true. The sex trade is a 24/7 business. You can buy sex at 7 a.m., lunch breaks and 3 p.m. I was kept up, moved around and didn’t sleep. Not able to think or fight back. Nobody thought ‘oh she’s being trafficked. They thought ‘she’s a drug addict and selling her body.'”
She said it is made to look like the victim wants to be in the sex trade but it is a control and manipulation tactic.
“Traffickers are good at making sure they are covering their tracks,” she said. “They make it look like it is that person’s fault. Look behind the scenes. Who is the person behind them who is the puppeteer and who is pulling the strings.”
She encouraged agencies to go after funds announced in the government’s $72-million initiative to combat human trafficking and start talking about creating committees and safe places for victims to seek counseling and refuge.
More – Read Quinte News’ Human Trafficking Edition 2 on Knowing the Signs.