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Pilots tackling trafficking

by Captain Martin Drake BALPA NEC

Ask yourself the question: what can I do to prevent human trafficking? Not much?

Then consider this:

You are piloting a flight from Europe to the US. The cabin crew are asked to assist a young female backpacker who speaks no English. When the plane lands there is no one to meet the girl. She has a phone number but the person answering it gets angry when contacted. They inform you of their concerns.  What do you do?

This isn’t just an example. It is what actually happened on one flight from Europe to Washington. The crew onboard that day called the authorities fearing the young girl was not on the flight of her own free will. Their actions may well have saved her from a life of servitude and prostitution.

Human trafficking is the movement of people by means such as fraud, coercion or deception, with the aim of exploiting them. Its big money – over $20 billion at the last estimate, and it’s happening all the time. It’s something that the aviation industry is beginning to understand, and meetings are taking place to work out how we can help tackle this vile crime.

Aviation involves transporting people around the world. Trafficking also involves the transportation of people across borders. But the purpose is very different with trafficking taking place in order to exploit people by the use of violence, deception, intimidation or coercion. This exploitation includes commercial, sexual and bonded labour. Trafficked people have little choice in what happens to them and often suffer abuse due to violence and threats made against them or their families. In effect, they become commodities owned by traffickers, used for profit.

In recent months I’ve met with the UK border agencies and IATA to learn more about the issue and I was surprised by how prevalent it is. But it is now being taken seriously by regulators and as pilots we need to consider how we can have an impact. 

Our job is to transport people safely and pilots take this extremely seriously. 

The UNHCR, ICAO and their allied committees have identified that over 60% of trafficked people will be moved by air. That amounts to around 300,000 per month, or somewhere between four and five per cent of global passengers.

So, can pilots make a difference?

Let me illustrate.

On a May 2016 flight from London to Chicago, a frightened, seven-year-old Albanian girl onboard appeared to observant flight attendants to be a victim of human trafficking. When a senior flight attendant tried to learn more about her, an older man traveling with her told the flight attendant not to interfere because he had purchased the girl. She was his property. The flight attendant informed the Captain to notify law enforcement, in accordance with airline procedure. Concerned about ruining the man’s life by making a false accusation, the Captain did not notify authorities. And the man and the young girl vanished once the plane landed.

A life of servitude perhaps?

While pilots need to be aware that they are not policemen, intelligence or border agents, they must realise that the information they can relay to those agencies could very well prevent someone’s life being ruined for ever.

Image that happening to our sons or daughters.

Do not be afraid to let someone know your crew’s concerns. They will decide what to do with the information. A mistake will not be ridiculed, preventing a person being trafficked may well save someone and the intelligence gained may disrupt a whole trafficking ring.

What information do the authorities need?

The four Ws are a good starting point

• What: is not quite right with the passenger, do they look like
• Where: are they sitting
• Who: if anyone is travelling with them
• When: did they come to the crews notice.

What should you do if you have concerns?

Remember this number: 08000 121 700

It will connect you to unseenuk.org – an organisation that can do something if you have any concerns.

Our job is to transport people safely and we should be aware of the growing problem of trafficking.