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Leon Kaye headshot

UN to Airlines: Do More to Fight Human Trafficking

By Leon Kaye

Air travel is one mode of transportation expected to grow rapidly in the near future: the International Air Transport Association (IATA), for example, expects the number of air passengers worldwide to double over the next two decades.

But with increased air travel comes the risk that human trafficking will increase as well. To that end, a United Nations representative spoke at the IATA’s most recent international conference to urge the world’s airlines to do more to stop the trafficking of men, women and children.

"Conflict, crisis, climate change, and poverty mean that 65.3 million people are on the run, leaving their houses and shelters behind within their countries or across borders," said Jean-Luc Lemahieu of the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime to an audience at the IATA’s Annual General Meeting last week.

The challenge with human trafficking is that to the untrained eye, it is often difficult to detect. Such passengers, and perpetrators of these crimes, can often blend in with human migration patterns. The problem, according to many NGOs, keeps getting worse. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), at least 21 million people worldwide have been subjected to human trafficking and find themselves into forced labor – and a majority, or approximately 11.4 million of them, are women and girls. As a result, 3 out of 1,000 people worldwide are often trapped into work into which they are coerced and find it almost impossible to escape.

The IATA has responded in kind to this human rights crisis, and insists that it will work with its member airlines in order to boost training and raise awareness about this problem. The organization has been discussing human trafficking more on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and has also rolled out a training program that it says can equip airline employees to curtail this clandestine crime. And while plenty of crime syndicates transport people across borders in order to exploit them, many victims of human trafficking are actually trapped into jobs within their own country, according to a recent IATA Facebook Live discussion.

To that end, U.S.-based air carriers say they have been aggressively working on this problem for the past several years. Airlines including JetBlue and Delta have participated in the Blue Lightening program, a partnership with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to help airline personnel to identify potential human traffickers and their victims. According to Reuters, 70,000 U.S. airline staff have completed training under this program.

One of the more public examples of identifying a human trafficking victim occurred on an Alaska Airlines flight earlier this year. A flight attendant working on a plane flying from Seattle to San Francisco grew suspicious at the body language between a girl who appeared to be in her teens who was traveling with an older man. The girl wrote on a note that she needed help, the pilot communicated with airport personnel, and upon arrival, police were waiting for the flight when it landed in San Francisco.

Other aviation industry organizations have also been on the forefront of fighting human trafficking. Airline Ambassadors, a non-profit also aligned with the UN, has also worked with the U.S. federal government to develop training programs to fight back against human trafficking. The Association of Flight Attendants, the labor union to which many airline industry employees belong, in recent years has urged its members to be vigilant in order to stop this crime.

The challenge, of course, is to identify human traffickers versus migrant smugglers or even everyday families who are simply traveling together on holiday. Furthermore, the airline industry could do more to educate all air travelers to identify the signs of trafficking. Atlanta’s airport, one of the world’s busiest air travel centers, had become a hub for sex trafficking children, and local and federal officials have responded in kind. As CNN’s Richard Quest noted during last week’s IATA Facebook Live on human trafficking, “If you go to Atlanta airport, it’s one of the few airports that has anti-human trafficking slogans; I don’t think I’ve seen them in most airports.”

The criticism of airlines in the past is that they were loath to take on this issue as publicized incidents were seen as a risk to their brand reputation. But increasingly, consumers expect companies to be proactive on social issues – and airlines are no exception, as these companies are in a unique position to tackle this issue head on and become heroes instead of bystanders.

Image credit: Andrew E. Cohen/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye