03/15/2013 05:38 EDT | Updated 05/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Human Trafficking In BC: Minister Launches New 3-Year Plan

B.C. Gov

SURREY, B.C. - Victims of a "modern-day slavery" will be more easily identified by emergency-room nurses and doctors in one B.C. health region under a new provincial program meant to crack down on human trafficking.

The Fraser Health Authority is developing a tool kit named Help, Don't Hinder that will assist frontline health workers in identifying the "red flags" of human trafficking, such as specific injuries and signs of abuse, long work hours, and a lack of money, documents or permanent homes.

The program is part of B.C.'s Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking announced at Surrey Memorial Hospital Friday and is being funded by money collected under the civil forfeitures process.

"Human trafficking is a modern day slavery that is a serious violation of human rights that inevitably leaves men, women and children with health consequences that can last a lifetime," said Tara Wilke, a forensic nurse and member of the human-trafficking team at the Surrey hospital.

She said at some point, human-trafficking victims will seek medical care, but health officials haven't been equipped to recognize signs of the problem or even offer appropriate support.

She said the tool kit will include an online training program, a DVD and education sessions.

To help pay for the tool kit, the provincial government granted $18,000 to Fraser Health, a fraction of the $145,418 handed out earlier this month to community groups across the province engaged in similar work.

Wilke said she first came face-to-face with the human-trafficking problem in Thailand in 2006, and when she returned to Canada she hoped she would be able to bury the feelings she had developed overseas.

But when she became a forensic nurse in 2007, she realized human trafficking and sexual exploitation were happening in Canada and she, like many others, wasn't recognizing it, said Wilke.

In fact, her team sees about 170 patients annually who have been inflicted with intentional violence, and of those about 50 to 60 per cent of those cases fit the model of sexual exploitation, she said.

"I know many British Columbians would say, 'that doesn't happen in our province. It happens somewhere else.' But I can tell you that it does happen here," said Shirley Bond, minister of justice and attorney general.

She said victims of the crime can be forced into exotic dancing, prostitution, illegal drug labs, as well as farm and domestic work.

Victims are controlled through lies, coercion, abuse violence, said Bond.

The provincial program is expected over the next three years to raise awareness about the crime across B.C., work with First Nation communities to prevent human trafficking, and increase research and legislative responses.

More than 130 groups across the province were consulted on the program, and discussions included several ministries, stated the ministry.

Sgt. Richard Akin of the Vancouver Police Department attended the event in Surrey and said officers passed on their concerns about human trafficking to the Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons, the agency that developed the provincial plan.

"When it comes to victim support we're all involved," he said, noting the programs announced at Surrey Memorial Hospital are a "good step."

When asked how the May provincial election will impact the program, Bond said she doesn't believe the issues is partisan.

"I think it doesn't matter what government you have, I think that any government would want to make sure that we have a strategy in place to deal with how we combat human trafficking," she said.

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