Written by Foti Kallergis, Director of Communications and Public Relations, Houston Airports
The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment that’s ripe for human trafficking activity that could flare up at U.S. airports, according to the U.S. State Department.
“Instability and lack of access to critical services caused by the pandemic mean that the number of people vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers is rapidly growing,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report released on June 25. “All modes of transportation can be unwitting conduits for human trafficking but with proper awareness and training, employees in the transportation industry can be key assets in identifying and reporting suspicious behavior.”
Polaris, an anti-human trafficking organization, estimates about 70 percent of the nearly 25 million adults and children who are trafficked worldwide pass through U.S. airports and transportation hubs.
In Houston, airport employees and partners are already ahead of the curve in human trafficking detection and training. Last year, Houston Airports become the first airport system in the nation to become a formal partner to Blue Lightening Initiative (BLI) – a federal program that trains aviation industry personnel to identify potential traffickers and human trafficking victims, and to report their suspicions to federal law enforcement. BLI— which is led by the Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection is an element of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Blue Campaign.
“It is critical for us to be able to discern the indicators of human trafficking activities, and more than 450 staff have been trained in the past eight months,” Houston Airports Director of International Relations Scott Alexander said. “Knowledge and awareness are key as we focus on prevention, protection, and partnership. That’s why our goal is to promptly get all our workforce, and other airport employees, trained to detect this crime every single year, in additional other awareness and public relations campaigns.”
The training and awareness campaigns at Houston Airports are deployed throughout the year and the educational materials are updated to effectively reach all Houston Airport employees. Houston’s participation BLI has become more critical since economic losses due to COVID-19 have or threaten to take away financial support for important anti-trafficking entities. Furthermore, financial instability, employment uncertainties, and language barriers are among a myriad of factors that have affected trafficking victims.
“Airport employees play a vital role in combating human trafficking in Houston through identifying possible victims and reporting these suspicions to law enforcement,” Houston Airports Chief External Officer Saba Abashawl said. “Houston Airports remains committed to helping our federal partners in their efforts to combat human trafficking. The practice of human trafficking is a scourge to humanity, and it must end.”
Houston Airports has long been in the fight against human trafficking. Prior to Super Bowl LI in Houston in February 2017, Houston Airports promoted awareness and education among volunteers and staff on how to identify possible human trafficking victims.
As World Day Against Trafficking in Persons approaches, the aviation industry must take notice and join-in on the fight.
“There are 25 million adults and children suffering from labor and sex trafficking worldwide. The desecration of the inherent value and immeasurable worth of human beings…makes human trafficking a truly wicked act,” Pompeo said.
Passengers arriving, departing and connecting through George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) and William P. Hobby (HOU) airports have noticed new enhanced safety measures implemented throughout their travel experience as a part of Houston Airport’s new FlySafe Houston initiative.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, FlySafe Houston is Houston Airports’ commitment to ensuring the safety and health of all passengers who arrive, depart and connect through IAH and HOU.
Houston Airport Director Mario Diaz said, “The FlySafe Houston initiative will aim to restore passenger confidence while travelling through our airports. All passengers want to know that at every step of their journey, their travel experience has layers of safety being implemented to keep them healthy. We have worked closely with our airline partners to make sure this effort is consistent and seamless.”
Additional enhanced safety measures will also include sensors inside select terminals that help identify areas of passenger congestion where additional safety measures may be implemented. Houston Airports team members will also distribute FlySafe Houston kits that include a mask and hand sanitizer to ticketed passengers at terminal entrances at IAH and HOU.
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