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It happens here too

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Not an issue typically associated with the region, human trafficking is a problem here nonetheless, and one that often remains in the shadows.

The Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) carried out 90 related investigations in 2019, laying 40 criminal charges, according to recently released year-end figures. The totals exceed those of any previous year, notes public information officer Cst. Andre Johnson.

“WRPS has a Special Victims Unit dedicated specifically to investigating cases of human trafficking. This branch conducts investigations of sexual assault and human trafficking while assisting and supporting victims,” he explained.

UNITAS, a global organization combating human trafficking, notes the practice is the second-largest business globally, next to the illegal drug trade. In 2017, the International Labour Organization estimated that there were 40 million people enslaved throughout the world. Of those, an estimated 25 per cent are children.

Such numbers were front and center during last week’s International Missing Children’s Day, marked on May 25. The day acknowledges those who have gone missing and those that have been found.

“Our children deserve safe communities where they can grow and thrive. Today reminds us that we must work together to find our missing children and protect them from future harm,” said Amanda Pick, CEO of the Missing Children Society of Canada.

The group notes there were 40,425 children reported missing in Canada last year, based on RCMP reports. Youth from the age of 12 to 24 continue to be at the highest risk for human trafficking.

The risk for human trafficking remains high even in rural communities, in places similar to Woolwich and Wellesley townships. However, there are resources in our community and within the Region of Waterloo. As per usual, if immediate help is needed, contact 911. The WRPS also has its non-emergency line, 519-570-9777, or anonymous tips can also be placed to Crime Stoppers online or over the phone at 1-800-222-8477.

WRPS has also partnered with community support groups such as the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region and the Waterloo Region Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Treatment Centre at St. Mary’s General Hospital.

In February, St. Mary’s worked with regional police to create a toolkit and campaign entitled It Happens Here.

“Human trafficking is a vastly under-reported crime, and these statistics likely only show a small glimpse into the real problem of sex trafficking in Waterloo Region. A disturbing fact that is much often ignored. For those experiencing human trafficking, it is often difficult to escape or report the crime. Posters were placed in high schools in the region explaining the severity of the crime and how to recognize if someone may be subject to human trafficking,” the kit notes.

“The trauma caused to the victims of human trafficking can be so harmful they refuse to come forward to ask for help,” explained WRPS Chief Bryan Larkin.

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