IATA is campaigning to help airlines play a role in ending human trafficking.
Human trafficking: Keeping your eyes open

A conservative estimate by the International Labor Organization suggests at least 25 million people are trafficked annually, the equivalent of the population of Australia. 

Human trafficking is a major challenge for every government. Only 15% of countries have more than 50 convictions for the offence per year. And yet a conservative estimate by the International Labor Organization suggests at least 25 million people are trafficked annually, the equivalent of the population of Australia. That means every minute 50 people, mainly women and children, become victims of human trafficking.

This multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise is one of the fastest growing in the world, according to the US State Department.

Joining the fight

The issue took to the stage at the 73rd IATA Annual General Meeting in 2017. Two senior executives—from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and broadcaster CNN—gave keynote addresses on human trafficking, noting their respective Blue Heart and Freedom Project initiatives. They urged more airlines to join in the fight against this crime.

IATA is in the process of determining a response at the industry level. “We are working with the support of our members to launch an initiative that will enable the airline industry to help governments and law enforcement in tackling this problem,” says Tim Colehan, Assistant Director, External Affairs.

There are three main strands to IATA’s work. Most importantly, it will be launching a general awareness #Eyesopen campaign aimed at airlines, their staff, and the traveling public.

There will also be guidance materials and best practice documentation so airlines can develop their own policy and initiatives on trafficking. And finally, IATA will produce “recognize the signs” training materials that airlines can include within existing customer-facing staff training.

IATA will share best practice and will look to partner with the Airports Council International (ACI), the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), UNODC, and other stakeholders on many of these initiatives.

Natural interest

The principal remains that governments and law enforcement agencies have the responsibility to identify, apprehend, and prosecute those involved in trafficking. But airlines are keen to help stop a crime that can happen in plain sight.

“Airline staff are in a unique position to support in identifying potential human trafficking situations,” says Robert Land, JetBlue’s Senior Vice President, Government Affairs and Associate General Counsel. “As an industry, we see it as the right thing to do to go above and beyond in these humanitarian efforts. The intelligence that airline employees, properly trained, can provide governmental and law enforcement agencies that investigate these matters can make a real difference in identifying individuals responsible for human trafficking crimes. We hope the industry’s efforts can help save many women, men, and children that fall prey to traffickers around the globe.”

Beyond the moral imperative, airlines have a natural interest in helping governments to tackle human trafficking, according to Colehan.

“Firstly, there is increasing awareness that human trafficking is used by terrorist groups to fund their activities, which are often focused on international civil aviation,” he says. “Secondly, airlines are having to comply with laws relating to anti-trafficking legislation. In the UK, there is the Modern Slavery Act 2015 that requires organizations to publish an annual statement detailing the steps they are taking to ensuring their operations and those of their supply chain are trafficking free. Anti-trafficking initiatives assist in the compliance.”

Thirdly, says Colehan, consumers and investors are increasingly buying from and investing in companies that can demonstrate good corporate citizenship.

“Airlines need to collaborate and work closely with the relevant government ministries, as well as non-governmental organizations, to conduct trainings and joint investigations, as well as share intelligence,” says Malaysia Airlines in a statement. “As an airline with an expansive network, Malaysia Airlines has taken an active stance against human trafficking. Some of our initiatives have included awareness training for our frontline staff to be on the lookout and to detect any suspicious activities. Malaysia Airlines recently held a three-day exhibition at Kuala Lumpur International Airport aimed at educating the public on human and wildlife trafficking issues.  We are also the first airline in Malaysia to work closely with the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Council, under the Ministry of Home Affairs, in combating human trafficking.”

Flight Attendants have to be vigilant in the aircraft cabin and we have a heightened sense of situational awareness

Crew training

Cabin crew training will be vital to airlines’ anti-trafficking endeavors. In the US, the Customs and Border Protection, Department of Transportation, and Department of Homeland Security run a campaign known as Blue Lightning. This involves training airline crew to identify the signs of trafficking and report the offenders.

“This training simply give us the tools to recognize a different type of threat to the safety of flight and enable us to enhance the work we already perform,” says Debora Sutor, Vice President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “Flight Attendants have to be vigilant in the aircraft cabin—we have a heightened sense of situational awareness.”

JetBlue helped launch the Blue Lightning initiative and has mandatory human trafficking training for its pilots and inflight crew members, as well as its airport operations staff.


How to spot a potential victim

Crews’ observation skills and professional experience support any specific trafficking training in the decision whether to report a suspected case. There are some tell-tale signs of which to be aware.

Potential victims of human trafficking may: 

  • be afraid of uniformed security
  • not have control of their travel documents
  • be unsure of their destination
  • appear frightened or nervous
  • follow clearly scripted stories
  • have inappropriate clothing
  • look young but claim to be an adult
  • defer any questions addressed to them to the trafficker

“When one of our crew members observes behaviors that might be symptomatic of human trafficking they follow a protocol that JetBlue has instituted to report the information,” Land explains. “Any suspected human trafficking situation is documented internally and reported to appropriate law enforcement authorities for follow up. Over the past few years there have been a number of suspected incidents reported and we are aware of one law enforcement referral that resulted in an ongoing investigation.”

Elsewhere, many airlines have also seized the initiative and are providing training as part of sustainability or corporate social responsibility programs. IATA’s role is to ensure standardization so that all member airlines, irrespective of size, are aware of the issue and have the tools and resources they need.

Anonymity when reporting the crime may be particularly pertinent as the trans-national gangs involved can be extremely dangerous. There is value in flagging up the problem after disembarkation too. Authorities can still catch at the offender at the airport or investigate and possibly uncover the trafficking chain.

“No country is immune to this crime,” Colehan concludes. “Human trafficking is a trans-national crime that needs a trans-national response. IATA is best placed to coordinate that from the airline point of view. The buy-in of airline CEOs would highlight this serious problem and allow them to get ahead of the curve. There could be lots of regulation coming, so airlines need to get ahead and self-regulate.”

Words: Graham Newton.

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