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Human trafficking a local reality in Ottawa

High profile human trafficking cases in the capital are bringing a new understanding of the crime to Ottawa. In most cases it's local people being forced into prostitution by people who woo, coerce, or force them into the sex trade.

The victims are often targetted by people they know, boyfriends, friends, relatives; people they thought they could trust.

PACT Ottawa estimates, conservatively, there are 150 people currently being trafficked into forced prostitution in the city. Police agree that estimate is low and there are likely hundreds of people being trafficked.

Investigators say it's difficult to track down human traffickers because of the stigma still attached to the sex trade and the rarity of victims being able to come forward.

Many people don't understand that much of the sex trade workers in the aren't there by choice. Those that are are not the concern of Ottawa Police.

Staff Sgt. Jim Pietrkiewicz said women are coerced, wooed, tricked into taking part in the trade and at the extreme end they are beaten, drugged and raped until they have become so brutalized they follow the instructions of their traffickers.

They are then conditioned to believe that no one cares about them, that police can do nothing for them and, worse, that police officers will not believe they are being forced into prostitution.

Because of these circumstances, Pietrkiewicz said it is very rare for victims to come forward themselves.

"You have to understand, there are a lot of things that are going on whether it's through threats of violence, coersion, Stockholm Syndrome, or just not having the ability to make the call themselves," he said.

"It's very difficult for them to come forwrd and the few that do have the courage to come forward, they need to know that they're going to be listened to and they're going to be helped," said Pietrkiewicz.

Victims services, a department within the Ottawa Police Services, does incredible work helping women and men who come through human trafficking experiences to safety, offering counselling, supports, medical care and more. The detectives who work in the unit are dedicated and have been investigating human trafficking for more than a decade.

The fact that people's understanding of the crime is changing is helping investigators in their work because more bystanders are reporting things that seem out of the ordinary.

Human trafficking isn't to be confused with human smuggling which involves women and men being smuggled into the country from overseas and forced into sexual slavery and slave labour.

Human trafficking is the domestic trafficking of bodies in the sex trade and it is happening in all areas of Ottawa to victims as young as 13.

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