It goes without saying that airports and seaports are critical checkpoints in the homeland security system. These entry points can be presented with a variety of potential threats. Understanding and recognizing threats requires security personnel to be well–trained in recognizing and handling many different situations—all in the effort for keeping America safe.
One of the tricky threats to recognize is the crime of human trafficking. Traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to control victims and to compel them into forced work or commercial sex work such as prostitution. Human traffickers are skilled controllers and manipulators. They threaten to harm their victims or the victim’s family if they signal or ask for help from bystanders in public places, especially while traveling, so the signs of human trafficking may not be obvious if witnesses do not know what to watch for.
That’s why security personnel and law enforcement departments at airports and seaports need more people watching for the signs of human trafficking on the front line. Employees who work directly with travelers every day can be trained to recognize and report possible human trafficking situations. This helps security personnel at seaports and airports be able to stop more suspected traffickers and recover more victims.
With the right strategy in place, airports and seaports can play a key role in identifying human trafficking situations and helping victims who are being moved through ports. The federal government provides training for TSA agents and other federal employees, but many United States ports do not provide human trafficking awareness training for the thousands of other employees who work in airports and seaports. When ticket agents, janitors, baggage handlers, deckhands, oilers, and other employees are properly trained and know how to spot the warning signs of human trafficking, they can help expand the reporting of this crime to their security departments and law enforcement.
One leader in this effort, the Port of Seattle, was the first port authority in the United States to develop a proprietary human trafficking prevention training that is required to be taken by all their airport and maritime facility employees. The Port of Seattle partnered with the nonprofit, Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) to develop two video-based trainings, Flights to Freedom and Ports to Freedom. Each course takes less than 30 minutes to complete, and clearly explains the indicators of human trafficking and what employees should do if they witness it. The training includes video statements from human trafficking survivors and was advised by teams of survivor experts. It also includes statements from Port of Seattle leaders explaining why preventing human trafficking is a top priority for the Port of Seattle.
Sam Cho, a Port of Seattle Commissioner, describes why training all employees is vital. “Here at the Port of Seattle, when you think of who the people are with the boots on the ground, they are the people who are working daily on the docks and in the terminals. They are the people who can see something. So, the first thing we can do is to train our employees so they know what to watch for, and then we give them the procedures to follow if they see something that may be human trafficking.”
When the Port of Seattle first started its human trafficking prevention efforts, they reached out to other ports around the country to see what they were doing on this issue, and quickly learned that not many ports were providing human trafficking prevention training for all employees. Since releasing their employee training program in January 2020, the Port of Seattle is now receiving requests from other airports and port authorities to look at its model as they explore providing similar trainings.
The new Ports to Freedom and Flights to Freedom trainings are sure to save lives by generating more eyes and ears looking out for the warning signs of human trafficking amid travelers and increasing the reporting of incidents to the proper authorities.
“A lot of people in the general public might know what human trafficking is at a very high level, but it’s not something we talk about often, and we have not focused enough on raising awareness about how average, everyday people can help with this issue,” Cho explains. “Since human trafficking is not always top of mind, it’s important to provide training, so employees can learn what the signs are and what the protocols are to help stop human trafficking.”