More awareness from the general public needed in the fight against human trafficking

Published: Sunday, Oct. 14 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

A poster warns people to look for signs of human trafficking.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News, Rescue and Restore

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SALT LAKE CITY — Kim Vasnos, a veteran flight attendant with American Airlines, was used to seeing travelers board airplanes for the first time with a mixture of awe and apprehension. But there was something about a first-time traveler on a flight from Chicago that didn't seem right to her.

Vasnos had good reason to be concerned.

The girl, a slight 18-year-old from rural Illinois, said she was going to meet a man she met on Facebook. She indicated that her new friend paid for the ticket but that she didn't have his cellphone number. His friend was going to pick her up from the airport.

Alarmed, Vasnos pulled the flight record locator, a document that allows airline personnel to find out who bought the ticket.

It wasn't a man from Florida, but instead a woman in South Carolina with the email handle "lovemimi1." Unsure of what to do, Vasnos watched the girl deplane. "I couldn't get that girl out of my mind," Vasnos said.

On the advice of a colleague, she contacted the Human Trafficking tip line.

A few days later she got a call from an agent at the Department of Homeland Security. Although the details of the case are confidential, the agent indicated that based on the information Vasnos provided, federal agents were able to locate the girl and her trafficker.

Efforts to eliminate human trafficking are at the forefront of many political and religious leaders' minds. "Our fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time," said President Barack Obama in his September address at the Clinton Global Initiative.

For more than a decade, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been a leader in response to this issue. Elder Dallin H. Oaks, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, stressed the importance of looking out for individuals who may be vulnerable to this type of exploitation in his October 2012 general church address.

Law enforcement officials and advocates say they can't win this war on their own. Recently, the State Department announced that medical personnel, flight attendants and Amtrak train attendants will receive training on how to spot the signs of human trafficking. And while training for these professionals is important, raising public awareness is crucial, according to Innocents at Risk, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting child exploitation and human trafficking.

Turning "millions of eyes on the issue" will "save lives," according to their website.

Types of trafficking

Human trafficking takes many forms, but the most common are sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Understanding the difference is important, advocates say, because it increases awareness of the different situations victims may be in. Victims of sex trafficking are typically found on the street or working in establishments that offer commercial sex acts, such as brothels and strip clubs. Often these establishments are not marked, and barred windows, barbed-wire fences, security cameras and heavy foot traffic are all tell-tale signs that something may going on.

Megan Fowler, director of communications at the Polaris Project, an organization that fights human trafficking in America, notes that people need not be patrons of these establishments to notice problems.

"We've had over 800 calls from people concerned about human trafficking occurring at hotels," she said.

Odd behavior in lobbies and communal areas can be indicators.

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