When I was in 3rd grade, I took my first trip to an airport -- and I was in awe. I couldn't believe I could hop on a plane and fly anywhere in the world. I still remember standing in front of a huge blinking sign with names of cities all over the world.
I still love airports. But I know that child traffickers use airports to transport their victims around the world -- often under the unknowing eye of travelers and airline personnel.
That's why I was glad on a recent trip to northern California to learn that all 3 Bay-area airports have trained their employees how to spot and stop human trafficking -- San Francisco, San Jose, and most recently Oakland.
Think about how easy it is to traffic a child on a flight. If you're trying to sneak drugs or a gun through airport security, chances are you'll get caught. But if you're trying to sneak a child through, who's going to know?
Since minors currently are not required to carry ID in order to travel by planes entering and exiting U.S. airports, traffickers use this to their advantage.
Here are some of the red-flags that airport employees learned about at the recent Bay-area trainings. And if you travel frequently, keep them in mind in case you see something that doesn't look right:
A child or teen:
- Doesn't make eye contact with you or anyone else
- Is watched closedly by an adult, more than a parent would
- Carries no personal items
- Is accompanied by someone who is much better dressed
- Isn't appropriately dressed, especially for her age
- Isn't dressed for the weather where she's flying to (eg wearing shorts in the middle of winter)
- Seems paranoid
- Is unusually submissive
- Sleeps the entire time on a long flight, doesn't eat, use the restrooms, or move (indicating he may be drugged)
- Seems malnourished; when food is served on plane, eats ravenously
- Companion eats but doesn't get food for child
- Someone else insists on speaking for or translating for him
- Afraid of uniformed security personnel, even flight attendants
- If traveling alone, doesn't know person picking her up
- Has a barcode tattoo on her neck, signaling she is "owned" or branded
- Doesn't know where he's going if you ask him; gives evasive answers
- Lets companion answer ticket agent's questions
- Can't use restroom by self (even a teen), or companion waits outside door
- Appears to be under control of adult who says he is her father, uncle, coach, etc.
- Says her boyfriend paid for her flight even though she has never met him in person, only on Facebook.
Just 1 or 2 of those red flags might not mean anything of course (well, a barcode tattoo should set off alarms), but if more than a few of these warning signs start piling up, something is wrong. Trust your instincts.
"Better to be nosy"
It's better to be nosy and turn out to be wrong than to let a potential victim of abuse fly right by you, says Betty Ann Boeving, executive director of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, which helped sponsor recent airport trainings.
"We encourage anybody, if you see a situation that actually is uncomfortable to you, that you think about that person in the situation who is probably 10 times more uncomfortable" than you, Boeving said.
Many other cities around the world are holding trainings for their employees, too. Kudos to Airline Ambassadors International, which has provided 20 training at airports around the US, and recently provided the 1st airport training in Europe, held in Ukraine.
What you should -- and shouldn't -- do
If you see something suspicious:
- Do not confront the suspected trafficker yourself.
- Instead report it to someone in the airport -- TSA, Homeland Security, ICE, a customs agent, or a gate attendant.
- If you're on a plane, tell a flight attendant.
- If no one believes you and you're still concerned, call 911 and the national human trafficking hotline, 888-3737-888.
- If you travel internationally, keep the link to the global hotline list in your phone.
All children are born to fly. Don't let a victim of child trafficking fly right by you.