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Trafficking Happens in Airports Too
February 7, 2019

“Human trafficking by airplane is almost impossible. Human trafficking by van and truck, in the back seat of a car, and going through a border where there’s nobody for miles and miles, and there’s no wall to protect — it’s very easy. They make a right, then they make a left. They come into our country. And they sell people.”

— President Trump, remarks at an event on human trafficking, Feb. 1 

“Human traffickers and sex traffickers take advantage of the wide-open areas between our ports of entry to smuggle thousands of young girls and women into the United States and to sell them into prostitution and modern-day slavery.”

— [President] Trump, in his State of the Union address, Feb. 5

Source: Washington Post

The statement that human trafficking by airplane is almost impossible is factually inaccurate. Trafficking happens in airports and on airplanes, and the aviation industry has played a critical role in anti-trafficking efforts. Meanwhile, the picture painted of trafficking via smuggling people through wide-open ports of entry is misleading, and it is important to be clear about how trafficking happens.

Airports and Airlines Commit to Anti-Trafficking Efforts

Trafficking through airports and airplanes is such a widespread issue that the aviation industry has made stalwart efforts to train aviation staff in seeing and helping trafficking victims. “The world’s airlines have launched a global awareness and industry-wide training program called #EyesOpen. It has two aims. One is teaching flight attendants, gate agents and other airline personnel to spot people who are being unwittingly lured or forced to travel as part of the fast-growing $150 billion-a-year global human trafficking criminal enterprise. The other is increasing the public’s awareness of the crime that happens thousands of times daily around the world, typically right in front of us.” (Source: Forbes)

The U.S. government has in many ways led the charge in training members of the aviation industry in spotting potential trafficking situations. “Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Homeland Security developed the Blue Lightning Initiative to raise awareness and train airline personnel to identify potential traffickers and human trafficking victims, and to report their suspicions to law enforcement.” (Source: Trafficking Matters) An American Airlines agent at a Sacramento airport made headlines when she used her training to rescue two trafficking victims. An Alaskan Airline attendant also did when she spotted and helped rescue a trafficking victim.

Trafficking via Illegal Border Crossings

Trafficking across borders is of course a widespread problem. However, the picture of wide-open borders is, according to experts, not quite accurate.

“According to data from the Department of Justice, in 2017, roughly two-thirds of the trafficking victims who were served by organizations that received funding from the Office for Victims of Crime were U.S. citizens. Among non-citizens, illegal border-crossing is not typically the issue. “Most of the victims we work with come in on perfectly good visas,” [said] Martina Vandenberg, the founder and president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center.” (Source: The New Yorker)

When victims come across borders legally and then are later trafficked, this makes it far more difficult for governments to prevent. And that’s not to mention trafficking that happens within the country, which appears to be the vast majority of cases.

Being serious about fighting trafficking requires being careful to be accurate about how it happens. Unfortunately, it is a complex problem that requires complex solutions. Taking care to be accurate about how the problem manifests itself is key to finding effective solutions.

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