San Francisco International Airport and human trafficking: All airports have a major role to play

Guest Author by Guest Author | Jul 29, 2020

Written by Susan Kim Wilton, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Manager, San Francisco International Airport

We hear the term, we generally know what it refers to, but do we really know?  Most people do not think much about human trafficking except for when we are reminded –  whether it be through catching a glimpse of an occasional sign posted in a public space (which is often accompanied by dark imagery that catches our eye), or when there is increased media coverage of incidences of sex trafficking around major sporting events, such as the Super Bowl or the NCAA Final Four.

While no one would condone human trafficking, the reality is many of us do not see it as something of relevance to our everyday life and may not view it for what it is – modern day slavery involving violations of basic human rights. By definition human trafficking is a form of enslavement where people profit from the control and exploitation of others. Perpetrators accomplish this by using tactics of force, fraud and/or coercion(controlling someone through threat) to obtain some type of labour or commercial sex act. 

Various human rights violations occur at different stages of the trafficking cycle, including unassailable rights such as: the right to life, liberty, and security; the right to freedom of movement; and the right not to be subjected to torture and/or cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment.

Involuntary domestic servitude, sex trafficking, forced labour, bonded labour, child labour, debt bondage, child commercial sex trade – are all forms of human trafficking that exist in the U.S

A profitable global issue

The human trafficking industry is the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise and the second most profitable illegal industry in the world, second only to the drug trade. Human trafficking earns global profits of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers, $99 billion of which comes from commercial sexual exploitation. So why the fast-paced growth?  The profit potential for trafficking people over drugs or weapons is far greater, and often the penalties are not as harsh. Victims of human trafficking are viewed by perpetrators as a commodity that can be reused, or even sold, for financial gain. 

Human trafficking is not just a third world problem, it is a global issue.  Both labour and sex trafficking occur in the U.S. and in other developed countries – that means it is happening in our own neighbourhoods, often in plain sight. We need to debunk the myth that human trafficking only happens in illegal or underground industries.  Cases are reported and prosecuted in industries including restaurants, cleaning services, construction, and factories. While women and children suffer disproportionately from trafficking worldwide, there is no single profile of a human trafficking victim – victims can be of any ethnicity or race, gender, immigration status, or faith-background. Vulnerable populations with little social or legal protection are most at risk and often do not seek help.  Factors making human trafficking a hidden crime include language barriers, fear of the trafficker(s), and/or fear of law enforcement.  Preying on those who are most vulnerable adds to the heinous nature of this criminal industry.

Why airports are hubs for human trafficking activity

In the last 10 years, we have seen an increase in the conscious effort to combat human trafficking by the aviation industry. In the words of Airports Council International (ACI) World, “Airports around the world are determined to assist authorities by reporting suspected human trafficking cases and making it as difficult as possible for the global air transport network to be exploited for this trade.” Last year, ACI published the first edition of its “Combatting Human Trafficking Handbook,” and in 2018, International Air Transport Association (IATA) published its first edition, “Guidance on Human Trafficking.” In a joint effort, ACI and IATA launched their #eyesopen campaign in 2018 to identify the key signs of human trafficking. Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Homeland Security developed the Blue Lightning Initiative to raise awareness and train airline personnel to identify potential traffickers and human trafficking victims. At airports, we have seen anti-human trafficking awareness campaigns, increased employee training, and even implementation of new technology used as reporting tools (e.g., e-alerts and facial recognition software). 

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While the crime of human trafficking does not require any movement whatsoever, meaning victims can be recruited and trafficked in their own hometowns, perpetrators often use commercial air travel to transport their victims as part of their regular course of business. Trafficking victims may travel through airports alone or with their traffickers. Speed, convenience, and victim anonymity are all factors making travel by air the transportation method of choice for many traffickers.

Why do traffickers use commercial air travel?

  • SPEED – Traffickers can take victims out of the area quickly to lessen the victim’s ability to return home.
  • CONVENIENCE – Traffickers can send victims long distances without having to accompany them.
  • ANONYMITY – Victims avoid detection by Amber Alert (as opposed to transport via roadways) and TSA does not require children under 18 to provide identification when travelling with a companion within the U.S.

SFO Stands against human trafficking

While there is no one overnight solution that will put an end to human trafficking for good, bringing attention to this silent crime is one way airports can step up and do their part. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) continues to lead the way. As the first airport in the nation to have airline personnel undergo specialized training to better spot the signs of human trafficking, SFO recognized early on the role airports around the world can play in helping to dismantle this business of stealing freedom for profit. 

Airport employees trained against human trafficking

While each airport takes their own approach to training their staff, what is most critical following any employee human trafficking awareness training is for team members to leave the training:

  1. equipped with knowing common indicators to watch for signaling a potential human trafficking situation;
  2. empowered to take action, and
  3. prepared to follow reporting protocol if/when warning signs are observed.  

Since 2012, SFO has continued to provide facilitator-led refresher training to Airport employees, airline personnel, SFO tenants, and contractors addressing what human trafficking commonly looks like in an airport setting, and what to do if an employee encounters a possible human trafficking situation. Beginning in 2015, SFO also began distributing badge size “tip” cards containing trafficking indicators and resource phone numbers. Our badging office distributes these cards to newly badged SFO team members, underscoring our “See Something, Say Something” safety and security culture.  We have sponsored various human trafficking awareness campaigns, which have included fundraising events benefitting local trafficking survivors.

SFO’s anti-human trafficking efforts continue. Earlier this year, SFO partnered with Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition to both implement a program equipping frontline staff with the knowledge to identify human trafficking, as well as conduct a protocol assessment ensuring trafficking reports are channeled to the appropriate authorities. Through BAATC, SFO subsequently formed a partnership with University of California at Berkeley (U.C. Berkeley) to evaluate and measure the impact of the trainings. Collecting and reviewing actual data will help guide SFO’s next steps. 

SFO will also be looking at the efficacy of our public restroom sticker campaign which we will kick off in late summer. Restrooms are one of very few places at an airport where a victim may be separated by the trafficker.  Approaching the sticker campaign thoughtfully, SFO worked closely with a number of local human trafficking survivor advocacy groups. We obtained feedback on appropriate verbiage, visuals, language translations, and resource information for the stickers.  In order to eliminate any extra steps to obtain immediate help, our onsite Communications Center will receive all calls. Victims and tip providers will also be able to text and receive immediate assistance in most languages. With training and expert recommendations, SFO is implementing best practices and standardized procedures to address trafficking at our airport. Our ultimate goal is for SFO to become an airport “black-listed” by human traffickers as a place to avoid when conducting their illicit business.

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Effect of COVID-19 on SFO’s anti-human trafficking efforts

Presently, airports worldwide, and the aviation industry as a whole, are rightfully focused on the health and welfare of travellers, staff and the public, and helping to reduce opportunities for the spread of COVID-19. The unexpected diversion of attention and funds now being channeled to specifically address COVID-related issues has not fundamentally derailed SFO’s anti-human trafficking efforts. Our initiatives remain a priority because in many ways, we know it is business as usual for traffickers, even during this pandemic crisis.

According to Polaris’ June 10, 2020 report, Crisis in Human Trafficking During the Pandemic, when comparing post-shelter-in-place time with pre-shelter-in-place time in 2019 and 2020, the number of crisis trafficking situations (based on calls to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline) increased by more than 40 percent – from approximately 60 in a 30-day period to 90. So, we know trafficking is still occurring, and perhaps even at a higher rate during the pandemic. The reality is traffickers do not care about the health of their victims, and victims do not have any say about when or how they are transported. Nor do traffickers care about spreading COVID-19 to others. If a trafficking victim contracts COVID-19, traffickers will not spend the time or money getting their victims proper healthcare or testing – spreading the virus is not their concern. Traffickers still have a need to get their victims from city to city with the frequency and speed air travel offers.

Airports play a vital role in the effort to combat human trafficking. To truly disrupt this criminal activity, education of airport personnel (including reporting protocol) and public awareness is paramount. Consider your surroundings the next time you are standing in line at the security checkpoint, waiting to board your flight, or you are on a plane heading to your destination. And, if you are an airport or airline employee, stay vigilant and trust your intuition to report, you could be saving a life.

Common human trafficking indicators

It is important to realize that victims will almost never self-identify as such due to fear, manipulation, or ignorance. Some common indicators of a victim, however, may include:

  • Few or no personal items
  • Clothing that does not fit their travel destination
  • Visibly upset, fearful or anxious
  • In the airport for a long period of time
  • Anxious around uniformed security
  • Unsure of destination, reason for travel, or who will be meeting them
  • Scripted or inconsistent stories
  • Claims to be adult, but looks like a minor

What not to do

When you observe what appears to be trafficking, the best thing you can do is report the situation. Actions you should not take:

  • Do NOT confront anyone you suspect of engaging in trafficking
  • Do NOT try to rescue any possible victim
  • Do NOT display any unusual concern or alarm
  • Do NOT endanger yourself or others

Susan directs Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) programming at San Francisco International Airport.  As part of her responsibilities, she also oversees Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) for SFO’s nearly 1,800 internal team members, and SFO’s Title VI compliance program. She has been with SFO for over 14 years and her primary focus beyond compliance is creating and implementing departmental policies, programs, and initiatives that support vulnerable populations.   


The article was provided by a third party and, as such, the views expressed therein and/or presented are their own and may not represent or reflect the views of ACI, its management, Board, or members. Readers should not act on the basis of any information contained in the blog without referring to applicable laws and regulations and/or without appropriate professional advice.

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