Sex traffickers targeting youth online, says investigator in case involving Edmonton girl
WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced sexual violence or know someone affected by it.
An Edmonton man and woman are facing human trafficking charges after a 16-year-old girl told her school counsellor she had been recruited and forced to work in the sex industry.
The couple are charged with numerous offences, including that they trafficked the girl using sexual-services advertisements.
Traffickers in Edmonton are increasingly using the internet to target, entrap and then sell young people, said Staff Sgt. Frank Pagé, who supervises the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) human trafficking unit.
"It is a growing trend that we are seeing; youth being manipulated, trafficked and targeted into this industry," Pagé said.
"It's not as uncommon as we as parents and police would like to think."
A hidden crime
Investigators say the teen is just one victim of a well-concealed criminal industry that continues to proliferate online in Edmonton and communities across Canada — a trend advocates say has been made worse by pandemic isolation.
Alexander Basaraba, 20, and Brooklyn Jober Sutherland, 19, were arrested last month after officers searched two Edmonton homes.
The pair, who are set to appear in court March 10, are jointly charged with nine counts including trafficking a person under the age of 18, arranging for a sexual offence against a child, and advertisement of sexual services.
They are also charged with child luring and with making, possessing and distributing child pornography.
Investigators believe there are other victims, and this week released photos of the accused, who are known to use aliases, in the hopes other victims will seek help.
Pagé commends the 16-year-old victim for her bravery, and hopes the case raises awareness about the risks for youth, especially on social media.
"Younger people generally are more easy to manipulate," Pagé said. "Also, the youth are easier to market in the sex trade industry because that is what the demand out there is for. It's unfortunate, but these are the trends we are seeing."
Edmonton's human trafficking industry, which operates inside and outside of organized crime, is a challenge for law enforcement, Pagé said.
Many victims are sold to johns through online escort ads, their images hidden among photos of men and women who are willing participants in the sex industry, she said.
Out of fear or shame, many victims never report their abusers, she said.
"I certainly don't see it shrinking," she said. "We can't get a full picture of how prevalent this is across Edmonton … but it's shocking how many ads are out there."
Some advocates had hoped pandemic shutdowns would stifle human trafficking but as restrictions took hold, traffickers changed tactics, said Julia Drydyk, executive director of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, a charity that also operates a national hotline for victims and survivors.
Exploitation still occurs through sex work on the streets but the vast majority of victims are now being trafficked by their abusers through online escort ads, Drydyk said.
"That's really shocking to us," she said. "Traffickers have found ways to kind of adapt across the various restrictions to maintain this form of exploitation and continue to profit."
Traffickers have used the pandemic to their advantage, moving their operations online, said Amanda Warnock, an educator with the Action Coalition on Human Trafficking (ACT Alberta).
The trend is pervasive, not only in sex trafficking but in labour, where more people are being trafficked through online ads by their employers, Warnock said.
Public health restrictions have made these hidden crimes more challenging to track, and made it more difficult for victims to access help from agencies, she said.
Many abusers have used the public health orders as a way to further isolate their victims and hide their crimes, she said.
"It's completely subverted the way that we usually work, but I think we're more than capable to adapt as well."
'Far too common'
The recent Edmonton case is a reminder that no community, no person is immune and human trafficking is a pervasive, domestic issue, Drydyk said.
"The experience of this incredibly brave young woman is far too common," she said.
"The misperception that human trafficking only happens in other countries or to people being smuggled into Canada is one of our biggest challenges."
Support is available for victims and survivors of human trafficking. The toll-free number for the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking is 1-833-900-1010. If you are in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.