Flight attendants are often the only people outside of government and law enforcement who interact with victims of human trafficking on a regular basis. The only problem is that they don't always know who those victims are, even as handlers, buyers, or kidnappers are transporting them openly on commercial airlines.
Human trafficking can mean many things. Sometimes it's men being forced into labor, while other times it's women and children being sold into sexual exploitation. And because victims are often too bewildered and scared to self-identify, a coalition of groups is working to train flight attendants to look for signs.
Innocents at Risk, the Association of Flight Attendants, and Airline Ambassadors are three organizations that work in tandem with the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) anti-trafficking initiative. DHS helps train airline workers to recognize typical signs that a person is being trafficked—such as when an accompanying adult doesn't know a child's name or when a group of young women who don't speak English appears to be in the thrall of a single person.
And now the humanitarian group Airline Ambassadors is announcing the launch of a new app that will allow the group to track airline personnel's reports of suspected trafficking. The app allows airline workers to upload video footage of suspected trafficking cases to provide evidence something shady is going on, and gives the group some way to count the number of tips reported since DHS doesn't release data about the success rates of its tip line.
"We need to advocate within the industry," Airline Ambassadors president Nancy Rivard said. "Airlines have the infrastructure; it's just about getting the political will to do this."
Rivard was first approached about anti-trafficking campaigns by the team at Innocents at Risk. The nonprofit already had a history of working successfully within the airline industry: A longtime American Airlines flight attendant, Sandra Fiorini, had previously partnered with the organization to help create the first anti-trafficking training program for airline workers after becoming frustrated with what she saw as clear indicators of human trafficking with no real government response.
Fiorini testified to the 2010 Congressional Human Rights Commission on Human Trafficking that she often saw suspicious things—like "three adults of the same nationality with five children of all different nationalities and same age," and, on a direct flight from Moscow to Chicago, "young girls 15 to 17 years old coming over from Russia thinking they are going to be models and work on TV in New York City, even though they didn't speak any English."
Since Rivard's organization was already working with children internationally, they were poised to fold trafficking awareness into their existing mission. After meeting with Innocents at Risk, Rivard recruited a group of about 12 volunteers to look for trafficking on flights.
"Within a month, we had identified trafficking on four different flights," Rivard said. "One of which led to the big Boston bust of a child trafficking ring that saved 86 kids."
Rivard only knows about the Boston case, though, because it was widely covered in the press. She expressed frustration with the Department of Homeland Security's inability to share data on how many tips are called into the DHS Blue Campaign anti-trafficking hotline, or whether the tips called in by flight attendants typically result in a bust.
Association of Flight Attendants spokesperson Molly Sheerer also said the reporting process was a one-way stream: "When flight attendants think there is possibly human trafficking going on, they notify the officials," she said. "But it's not often that they find out what happens or how it's handled legally."
In 2013, the DHS anti-trafficking Blue Campaign was expanded to involve airline personnel, who are uniquely positioned to intervene because so many people are trafficked into the US on commercial planes. The airline initiative, Blue Lightning, requires airlines to enter into a partnership with DHS. So far, sources said, only a few airlines had signed up.
But on January 21st, Congress enacted a bill directing DHS to train personnel to detect trafficking signs. HR 460 mandates that, within six months, DHS will launch a training program for sub-agencies like the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and US Customs.
Strangely, the bill makes no mention of increasing trafficking detection at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which human rights organizations and attorneys say regularly mishandles or fails to identify trafficking victims. ICE is part of DHS, and is one of the most well-positioned government agencies to screen for victims of trafficking as people are brought to its detention centers for violating immigration law.
According to ICE, people the agency determines to be trafficking victims become eligible for temporary US residence and can apply for a T Visa, a special visa awarded to trafficking victims who help law enforcement investigate and/or prosecute traffickers.
ICE spokesperson Jennifer Elzea said the agency identified approximately 440 victims in human trafficking cases in 2014.
"ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) takes a victim-centric approach to human trafficking cases, meaning we will do our best to protect the victim and remove them from the situation before we begin an in-depth investigation," Elzea said. "However, as part of protecting the victim we are not going to provide information on them or the possible investigation."
But Lisa Graybill, former legal director of the ACLU of Texas, said that too often victims aren't helped in DHS custody, and in fact sometimes they suffer abuses at the hands of guards and other personnel.
"Unfortunately, DHS has a poor track record with regard to internal investigations of reports of abuse, so I am concerned that simply encouraging flight attendants to call the government will not necessarily result in the situation being investigated and remedied," said Graybill. "Additionally, detainees are terrified to report misconduct to the government lest it negatively affect their immigration cases or for fear of retaliation against themselves or family members living in the US."
Such fears are far from unfounded. Lack of transparency at DHS doesn't just make it so that anti-trafficking initiatives are unable to track their own success records—it also means that no one knows what, exactly, happens to trafficking victims after they are discovered. While official DHS policy states victims trafficked on US soil can be eligible for a T visa and are brought to safe houses, reports have repeatedly surfaced that non-citizen trafficking victims are often simply deported.
And for many trafficked people, fear of being deported—and often a lack of understanding—prevents them from every self-identifying as victims. Such fears are so prevalent that in 2012, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that most of the annual pool of 5,000 T visas available were going unused. That year, only 557 were assigned.
Regardless of mixed reviews when it comes to DHS's handling trafficking cases, airline workers are still on the first line of defense when it comes to watching out for signs that a victim is being transported. That's why flight attendants say training within the ranks should be a priority—in some cases, it can be life-saving.
Graybill recalled a 2011 lawsuit she filed against ICE after a Texas guard was charged with sexually assaulting female detainees as he transported them from ICE custody to the airport or bus station.
"One of my clients in the sexual assault case ran into the airport crying after she was nearly raped by the guard transporting her. Personnel there recognized she was in distress and helped her report what had happened to her," Graybill said. "But for their actions, the guard might still be assaulting women. I think airline personnel want to make a difference, and they really can."
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