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

Published: Thursday, Oct. 8 2015 11:50 p.m. MDT

A poster warns people to look for signs of human trafficking. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News, Rescue and Restore) A poster warns people to look for signs of human trafficking. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News, Rescue and Restore)

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.

Victims of labor trafficking are typically forced into some kind of indentured servitude. They may be placed as domestic workers at nail parlors, sweatshops or on construction sites. Red flags should go off if the individual lives at their place of employment, is not free to leave the premises and does not appear to get any lunch breaks, said Fowler. Another red flag is if the individual works long or unusual hours but is paid very little or only through tips.

Profile of victims

Most trafficking victims will not readily volunteer information about their situation. Even when pressed they may not identify themselves as a person held in bondage because they fear retribution from their captors. Victims tend to be in poor physical and mental health. They often are malnourished, dehydrated and have poor personal hygiene, according to data by the Polaris Project.

Victims may show signs of physical and sexual abuse. These may include bruising, broken bones and other signs of untreated medical problems. Frequently, they exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress, which may include anxiety, a tendency to avoid eye contact and crying. Other warning signs include: lack of control over money and travel documents, inability to identify their location or destination and not being allowed to speak for themselves.

There is a misconception that victims of trafficking are always female foreign nationals, Fowler said, but that just isn't the case. For example, 83 percent of the victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. are American citizens, according to statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and 30 percent of labor trafficking victims hold valid visa permits. The overwhelming majority of sex trafficking victims are female, but it is common for men to be victims of labor trafficking as well.

It is also important to be aware of some of the indicators associated with traffickers themselves, advocates and law enforcement say. One red flag is if an individual appears to be highly controlling of other adults. Another warning sign is if an adult doesn't appear to know the children he or she is with. For example, while boarding a plane from Washington, D.C., to Florida, Deborah Sigmund, founder of Innocents at Risk, noticed that a male passenger carrying a young boy had to look up the child's name when asked by the airline personnel. Sigmund alerted authorities after she asked the boy what he was going to do in Florida and he told her he thought he was going to North Carolina.

Asking questions

Asking questions of individuals who appear to be in distress can help concerned members of the public determine if the authorities need to be alerted. The Department of State recommends engaging potential victims in conversation if it can be done without jeopardizing safety.

Folwer agrees.

"Don't do anything that will put you or the victim in more danger," she said. Make sure the person is alone before you engage them, she suggested. If given the opportunity to be direct, ask them if they are allowed to come and go as they please. Ask if they are being paid for their work. Ask if their employers are mistreating them.

Anyone can run into victims in the course of day-to-day activities, Folwer said. They could be the nanny at the park who isn't allowed to talk to anyone or maybe the busboy at a local sandwich shop who never leaves.

"If you think someone is a victim of human trafficking, don't just go in with fliers about human trafficking," Fowler said. "Engage them in small talk, but only if that is normally what you do." Asking where someone is from, how often they see their family or what they like to do during their time off might be non-threatening entry points.

Every case is different, warns Flower, which is why it is crucial to proceed with caution. "If you are worried about someone, call the national human trafficking hotline and talk to one of the trained call professionals," she said. "If you can give them some context, they can make suggestions about the best way to help."

If you're aware of a potential victim of human trafficking, call the Human Trafficking hotline at 888-373-7888. Trained professionals are available 24-7.

email: mwhite@desnews.com

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