By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
Earlier this year, a flight attendant noticed something wasn’t right about a pair of passengers traveling from Seattle to San Francisco. The young girl, about 14 or 15, “looked like she had been through pure hell” Shelia Fedrick told NBC News. The older man she was traveling with was very well dressed and when Fedrick tried to engage the two, the man became defensive. Fedrick was concerned and left a note in a bathroom for the girl, who then wrote back that she needed help. Fedrick reported the situation to the pilot, who notified police, and the man was detained upon landing. As it turned out, the young woman was a human trafficking victim.
Air travel is a surprisingly common way for traffickers to transport victims. “Commercial airlines are a natural hub for human trafficking—traffickers move victims frequently and often use the speed and convenience of commercial airlines,” said Nancy Rivard, founder of Airline Ambassadors International (AAI), during the Together Let’s Stop Traffick conference. “Therefore, airline personnel are in a unique position to recognize signs of human trafficking.”
It is estimated that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking around the world. It’s big business, too. The International Labor Organization estimates that human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide.
The U.S. federal government has taken new measures to stop human trafficking via air travel with the release of a training initiative that teaches aviation personnel how to recognize potential victims. On September 26, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) released this new training program as part of its Blue Lightning Initiative (BLI).
The training will be offered as an interactive, online module, teaching personnel about some of the common indicators of a trafficking victim. In addition, the training will provide protocol about how personnel can immediately report suspected traffickers to police.
[Related: How to Identify Signs of Human Trafficking]
While specifics about the program aren’t available, AAI recommends that flight crews look for potential signs of a trafficking victim including:
- Young women traveling alone
- Children who do not look comfortable with the person they are traveling with
- Anyone who:
- Is not in control of his or her travel documents
- Appears to be under the control of a travel companion
- Seems unsure of their final destination
- Does not make eye contact or has noticeable wounds or bruises
- Seems malnourished or eats ravenously
- Is disoriented or drunk
AAI encourages crew members to initiate conversations with suspected passengers to assess the situation, but emphasizes the importance of not acting overly concerned so as not to arouse suspicion. The organization also discourages aviation personnel from taking any action that may endanger themselves, but rather follow protocol to notify law enforcement.
Stopping Trafficking by Air, Land and Sea
This federal initiative focusing on the nation’s air transportation system is just one component of a multi-faceted effort to stop human trafficking.
“This new aviation initiative will complement the trucking industry’s existing Truckers Against Trafficking program,” said Dr. Michael Pittaro, criminal justice professor with American Military University who has written and lectured about human trafficking issues. This organization trains truck drivers to identify and report potential traffickers.
Pittaro believes more can be done to monitor the transportation networks of traffickers, who must regularly move victims to avoid detection by law enforcement.
[Related: Know the Language of Human Trafficking]
And, he wants to see other transportation sectors tackle the issue. “Since we now have policies and programs in place to combat human trafficking through land and air travel, I would suggest there also needs to be maritime policies and programs to provide education and awareness about human trafficking that can occur by sea,” he said.
After flying under the radar for too long, the problem of human trafficking in the United States is finally gaining widespread recognition, as evidenced by government and industry attention. As various programs raise consciousness of human trafficking across sectors, the transportation industry can be a partner in the fight to stop human trafficking in the United States and beyond.