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The New Front Line in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

It’s anything but unusual to be seated near a fidgety, nervous child on a flight. But what if that child were dressed in dirty, worn, ill-fitting clothes accompanied by an adult in tailored, expensive-looking business attire? And what if the adult answered for the child at all times, even when that child was directly addressed?

To an untrained person, the assumption might be an abusive or neglectful relationship. To a flight attendant, this scene might raise another red flag – potential human trafficking.

Worldwide, there are reportedly as many as 20.9 million victims of human trafficking. If you think these statistics are limited to third world countries or some far away land, you couldn’t be more mistaken. Just look at this heat map of the United States for a sobering look at just how much of it is operating in our own neighborhoods. Alongside America on the list of top trafficking destinations are the U.K., Australia, France, Brazil, The Netherlands, Israel and Saudi Arabia. No affluent area of the world is unaffected by this scourge.

But the fact that this operates in broad daylight, right under our noses, is precisely where flight attendants come in.

As flight attendants, we see just about everyone. When people need to travel, they need us. We encounter heads of state, celebrities, long-lost cousins and the guy that works at the grocery store that we say hello to but don’t know his name. And we don’t just see them but interact with them for hours on end, which makes us keen observers. There is little that goes unnoticed. When traffickers escort their victims to their destinations, we are unavoidable, and we can often pick up on cues that something is wrong.

Shelia Fedrick was working an Alaska Airlines flight to San Francisco from Seattle when that instinct hit her. She’d noticed a young teenage girl onboard, disheveled and distressed, traveling with an older man who was dressed in much nicer clothes. Fedrick decided to talk to the pair casually so she could get a feel for them, and the man was abrupt and dismissive. Later in the flight, as the girl emerged from her seat to use the restroom, the observant flight attendant left a note inside for her to find, asking if she needed help. The response was just as she’d suspected – she did. The pilot alerted the police, who were there to meet the flight.

In another incident, a man was accompanying a boy on a flight from Honduras to Miami. Flight attendant Donna Hubbard noticed that the boy seemed ill and in pain. When she asked him about the boy, he gave her a different name and age than he had given other members of the crew. Again, the pilots notified authorities, who were unable to give specifics but did confirm that the boy was, in fact, the victim of nefarious activity.

Both Hubbard and Fedrick credit Airline Ambassadors International (AAI), a nonprofit group comprised mainly of airline employees, for providing them with the training that helped them to save these victims. AAI has sought to take full advantage of the role of the flight attendant in the fight against human trafficking and offers training not just to crews, but employees of all sectors of the travel industry, and even law enforcement themselves and anyone interested in learning more about the ways to put an end to this horrifying $150 billion a year industry. Education and awareness takes away these predators’ ability to operate openly, so spreading information across all avenues used by traffickers is key.

Here are some of the signs that someone may be under the control of a trafficker:

– Unaware of destination

– Does not seem to have personal items

– Is not in control of his or her own travel documents

– Traveling to a suspicious “modeling” job and doesn’t know the person who is picking them up or where they will be staying

– Person traveling them will not allow them to be alone or speak for themselves

– Displays physical abuse symptoms

– May be extremely hungry

– Seems to be dressed poorly while person accompanying them is dressed much nicer

– Victim will not make eye contact and seems afraid or paranoid

As awareness of this modern crisis is raised, more groups are stepping up to stop it. American Airlines recently announced that it will be working with ECPAT-USA (End Child Prostitution And Trafficking) to help establish company policies and spread awareness among both its employees and the traveling public. Outside the airline industry, non-profit organization The Polaris Project has been crucial in educating the public.

This sickening black market business exists, and it exists in our backyards. Learning the signs is critical to stopping it. If you are on a flight and just don’t feel right about something you witness, it never hurts to tell your crew. What lies ahead at the destination for these victims is unthinkable, and when we ignore it, we allow it to proceed. Speaking up can save someone’s life.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

Comments are Closed.
toddhicks209 September 1, 2017

Kudos to the flight attendants for being observant and alerting law enforcement.

weero August 24, 2017

I recall mostly false-positive identification of "trafficked children" based on such grand insights as them not speaking English on an EZE-MIA flight or the families being dressed differently than the overzealous FA had imagined. All that resulting in great agony for the innocents and delays and missed connections and lost opportunities for everyone else onboard. Great that there are two cases where an actual victim was found... FAs playing law enforcement is a decent sized problem already IMO. Giving them any more missions or Judge Dredd powers will make the situation worse for everyone else. Professionals should tackled the actual problem here, not people with a desire for power.

JackE August 16, 2017

I don't doubt there are slaves, but the figures in this "report" are totally arbitrary. They lump all sorts of categories together in coming up with a number, then just guess instead of taking an actual count, which would obviously be impossible. For example, if you hold a 15-year-old girl in chains in your basement, that is counted the same as if you withhold pay from a 50-year-old employee. "Sexploitation" includes grown women who choose to engage in sex work. That may or may not be a healthy lifestyle, but it's not slavery. Does anyone expect SJW's to EVER conclude that problems are not as bad as they claim?