'They will be believed': VicPD asks victims of sex trafficking ring to come forward

You will be heard and you will be helped.

That is the message the Victoria Police Department wants to share with anyone in their region who has been trafficked for sex work. 

The department suspects there are victims in the region who have not come forward after Shawn Alexander Kelly, 23, Seyed Kourosh Miralinaghi, 19, Seyed Kamran Miralinaghi, 19, from Victoria and Shermineh Sheri Ziaee, 36, from Langford were charged with numerous human trafficking-related crimes in January.

VicPD spokesperson Const. Cameron McIntyre said the force's number one priority is to connect victims with support services and not to involve them in criminal investigations. 

"These people will be heard. They will be listened to. They will be believed and there is no judgment on our end. We are just looking to help them and ensure their safety," said McIntyre Thursday on On The Island.

He said there is sometimes a misunderstanding that people think if they come to the police, they are automatically going to be involved in some criminal matter.

McIntyre says victims will not need to press charges, or provide evidence in court, unless they want to.

"Our mentality is victim first. Arrests and charges and things like that come later, certainly with the help of the victim," he said.

Shermineh Ziaee / Facebook

Online luring on the rise

Ashley Franssen-Tingley, a spokesperson for the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, said the largest at-risk age group is 18 to 25 but can be much younger and the majority of victims are female. 

She said victims usually live in fear of their trafficker and without identification, money, or access to a phone, and while they can be recruited in person, traffickers are finding more and more of their targets through social media.

"We're definitely seeing a rise in grooming and luring online," said Franssen-Tingley.

According to Statistics Canada's latest figures, reports of the "most serious violation" of laws around human trafficking soared from a couple of dozen across the country in 2010 to 340 in 2016.

McIntyre said the crime is often unreported and undetected and for that reason it is difficult to know exactly how prevalent it is in particular regions.

Signs of a trafficked victim can include: isolation, secretive behaviour, unexplained clothing, jewellery or cash, always being accompanied by a controlling partner or having a new partner they will not introduce to people.

Public misconceptions

In a Feb. 20 media release, non-profit civic engagement organization CivicAction revealed findings from a survey of 1,500 randomly-selected Canadians about trafficking awareness.

The survey found 73 per cent of respondents believe sex trafficking starts with an abduction on the street and 47 per cent of those surveyed equate it with being kidnapped and forced to trade sex for money.

According to CivicAction, these are both common misconceptions and victims are often actually recruited by someone they know.

"Sex trafficking is hiding in plain sight and we need to better educate people on how to spot and stop it," said Tamara Balan, Interim CEO at CivicAction in a news release.

Getting help

Anyone who has been a victim in the Victoria region can call the non-emergency line at the Victoria Police Department at (250) 995-7654. If people want to remain anonymous. McIntyre said they can call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.

McIntyre suggested if victims do not want to deal with police at all, they reach out to the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre or the Peers Victoria Resources Society.

The Salvation Army also runs a program called Deborah's Gate which includes a high-security safe house in a confidential B.C. location. The number for the program is 1-855-332-4283.

The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-833-900-1010 nationwide and 24/7 confidential help is available in more than 200 languages.