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Airlines, hotels on front lines in fight against child trafficking

The hotel and airline industries are increasingly working with governments and international law enforcement to fight child trafficking.
/ Source: Reuters

Airline passenger Deborah Sigmund noticed something strange about the man and boy who ran up late to catch a US Airways flight last December from Washington to Palm Beach, Fla.

When staff at the gate asked the man for the boy's name, he had to rifle through papers for an answer. On board, Sigmund quietly asked the boy why he was going to Florida.

"I thought I was going to North Carolina," he said.

Sigmund said she alerted the flight crew, who radioed ahead to authorities about a possible case of child trafficking. Her quick wits helped her spot what authorities later told her was a likely case of a child abducted for use in pornography.

Her intervention is evidence of a growing effort by grass-roots organizations in the hotel and airline industries to back up the work of governments and international law enforcement in fighting human trafficking.

But Sigmund had a head start. As founder of nonprofit Innocents at Risk, she had set up a training program to help airline staff and the hospitality industry spot signs of trafficking.

She has worked with Nancy Rivard of Airline Ambassadors International (AAI), a group that has expanded its traditional humanitarian mission to help beat the trafficking scourge.

"We are in a unique position to play a critical role in teaching airline personnel to identify traffickers and report them," said Rivard, who worked for 30 years for American Airlines and founded the AAI group.

Tell-tale signs to detect possible trafficking are: Does a child have few personal items when they board a plane? Do they avoid eye contact, look paranoid, undernourished or ill-treated, or behave in an unusually submissive manner?

Does the adult with them refuse to let them speak for themselves or roam around the plane freely?

If so, flight attendants could be witnessing a case of child trafficking similar to the one Sigmund saw.

A crucial role
Airlines and hotels play a crucial, if unwitting, role in the global human trafficking industry by providing transport and lodging to criminals.

That industry represents $32 billion in value to organized crime and is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, according to the nonprofit Polaris Project, an organization dedicated to combating human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

In the United States, as many as 300,000 children are trafficked annually and most are used for prostitution and pornography, according to a 2001 University of Pennsylvania study.

Airlines already coordinate in a "worldwide effort among police, border control and intelligence agencies," to fight a crime that "violates the most basic precepts of human dignity," the Air Transport Association said in a statement.

The human trafficking industry was also the subject of a hearing in July co-sponsored by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., who called for tougher sanctions on offenders.

"The airline and hotel industries should be on the front lines of the fight," he said in Congressional testimony.

But the obstacles are formidable.

Busy airports are a natural distribution hub for traffickers, and big airport cities become a magnet not just for adult prostitutes but also for the child sex industry, according to law enforcement authorities.

At the heart of the trade are clients. Typically, they are businessmen flying into a city for work who connect with exploited children via pimps who advertise their charges online, according to officials.

'Dark, dirty secret'
Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson is one of the world's busiest airports, and so it is no surprise that as many as 300 adolescent girls are sexually exploited each month in Georgia, according to the Atlanta-based Juvenile Justice Fund.

Only 8 percent of sexual exploitation occurs in hotels in Atlanta, but numbers can be deceiving, said Kaffie McCullough, campaign director of the fund's A Future Not a Past project.

"Girls might look 18 (because) they are dressed provocatively, but our studies show that most are actually at least 2.5 years younger," she said in an interview.

"We teach hotel personnel that if they look young, to call security."

To combat the problem, Georgia has set up the only U.S. state-wide system of care for girls who exit prostitution and increased the number of beds in safe houses from seven to 23.

Officials say they are just scratching the surface and need the help of initiatives such as that started in 2004 by Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the chairman of Carlson Companies Inc., Queen Silvia of Sweden and the U.N. Children's Fund UNICEF.

Nelson's hotels were the first in the United States to sign a global code of conduct to train personnel to spot trafficking and report possible offenders.

Many overseas hotel industry players have signed the code, including those of Carlson, which operates in 77 countries under the Radisson, Country Inns & Suites, Park Inns and Park Plaza brands. But no other U.S. hotels have signed on.

"The media portrays sexual exploitation as a dark, dirty secret and no one in the industry wants to be associated with it happening at their hotel .... We tell them: let the public know what they are doing to protect children," Sigmund said.