Human trafficking: Private citizens deputized in the global fight

Travel companies, airlines, and other parts of corporate America are starting to provide training programs to help employees recognize human trafficking. Will heightened awareness help detect more trafficking cases?

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    An Airline Ambassadors International poster raises awareness on the issue of human trafficking, which enslaves up to 27 million adults and children worldwide.
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Patty McPeak had no ink-ling that her new training on how to spot human trafficking would be put to use so quickly.

Traveling from the Dominican Republic back to the United States after a humanitarian mission, Ms. McPeak was in the airport boarding area when a man and a little girl sitting nearby drew her attention. The man seemed to know little about his young companion, according to testimony McPeak submitted to Congress last July, and he became nervous as she struck up a conversation and asked questions.

The girl, who was about 4, started to speak, but the man whisked her off to the restroom. When they returned, the child appeared unconscious. McPeak, suspecting she had been drugged, alerted flight personnel. Authorities later confirmed that the man had been apprehended for human trafficking.

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That incident, from October 2009, was one of the first fruits of a nascent effort to train people in the private sector – especially employees of airlines and hotels – to detect human trafficking. The involvement of corporations and nonprofit groups, such as Airline Ambassadors International (AAI), is still at an early stage, but already it is proving to be a valuable addition to the government and law-enforcement fight against the modern-day version of an age-old scourge.

"The government can't do it all by any stretch of the imagination – there needs to be that effort to get more buy-in from corporate America," says Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey, who wrote the landmark antitrafficking law in the US, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Public-private partnerships, he says, will be key to the next decade of action against the international slave trade of today.

Because trafficking victims are often moved from place to place, those in the travel industry are among the most likely to come into contact with them. That recognition led AAI, a group of workers from every aspect of the airline industry who provides humanitarian support for people in need worldwide, to enlist in 2009 in the fight against human trafficking. McPeak, who at that time was AAI's board chairman, received her training through the organization.

More corporations, too, are joining the battle.

Carlson, an international travel and hospitality company with 1,000 locations in 150 countries, has developed a training program for its employees and has established procedures to follow when a worker spots something suspicious, says vice president Deborah Cundy. The firm, she says, has created "a virtual army of eyes and ears."

Carlson was the first North American travel company to sign a "code of conduct" drafted in 1998 by the ECPAT (End Child Prostitution and Trafficking) International Network, a collaborative of nongovernmental organizations and individuals. The code challenges signers to provide training to employees and take a strong stance against trafficking.

Delta Airlines and Hilton Hotels recently became the fourth and fifth US-based signers, signaling an uptick in those joining the fight, says Ms. Cundy. "At some point, we do hope that it becomes normal business practice," she says.

Employees trained to spot telltale signs of a trafficking victim are often advised to look for evidence of malnourishment, scripted or inconsistent stories, signs of physical abuse, and fear. Traffickers are often unable to answer even basic questions about those they are "escorting" and may prevent them from speaking to others.

AAI founder and president Nancy Rivard learned in June of another incident in which special training paid off. In that case, the trained individuals identified two children on a flight who appeared to be distraught and whose accounts of where they were going conflicted with what their escorts said. Authorities who subsequently investigated the incident uncovered a trafficking ring in Boston – and rescued 82 children.

"There are many, many stories every month," says Ms. Rivard. "Our goal is to provide training at airports across the country."

It was standing room only at AAI's largest training to date, held at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in January, she says. The program takes roughly 90 minutes, and participants receive wallet cards describing signs of traffickers and victims. The session is geared mainly toward heightening awareness.

Lack of awareness among Americans is one of the most challenging aspects of the fight against human trafficking, says Representative Smith, who chairs the House subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights. Organized crime, street gangs, and pimps are increasingly engaged in international sex trafficking, an "extremely lucrative undertaking" that can net a trafficker $200,000 per victim, he said June 13 at a subcommittee hearing.

Prosecutions in the US of alleged human traffickers jumped between 2009 and 2010, according to an annual State Department report, released June 27. Perhaps less heartening, the number of convictions dropped, along with the number of identified victims, it found. In the US, victims are often trafficked from other countries, though some are runaway juveniles or children abducted domestically, the report said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted the importance of strategic partnerships in battling trafficking, which she said enslaves as many as 27 million adults and children worldwide.

"Government should work more closely with the private sector," she said. "The decade of delivery is upon us."

Corporate participation, especially in the travel industry, is vital, says Carol Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT USA. The child prostitution trade has touched many airlines, hotels, and other enterprises, she says. "It has happened at every brand, because it's everywhere."

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