Photo depicting a white pillar with black artwork of a hand with a human face stenciled inside it. Text reads "END HUMAN TRAFFICKING."

OPINION: We Cannot Continue to Ignore Human Trafficking

by Stephanie Bowman and Mar Brettmann

Does Seattle Have Slavery?

After a year of travel restrictions, empty middle seats, and deserted terminals, air travel is back. Airport officials at Sea-Tac International Airport (SEA) are reporting the busiest weekends since the pandemic began as millions of Americans follow through on long-delayed vacations and trips. 

The typical air traveler may be concerned about long security lines or crowded flights. But there is another more sinister danger that airport employees and travelers alike must be alerted to — human trafficking. 

Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel labor or commercial sexual exploitation. It also encompasses any commercial sex involving a minor. It does not require crossing a border, so someone can be trafficked without ever leaving their hometown — but a nationwide study conducted in 2018 found that 38% of surveyed trafficking victims said they traveled by plane at some point during their exploitation.

Another study, conducted in 2014, found that people who had been labor trafficked were even more likely to have traveled by airplane. Seventy-one percent of the labor trafficking survivors surveyed had entered the country on a plane at the beginning of their trafficking experience.

The Port of Seattle realized that many victims of human trafficking come to Seattle though the SEA. Often, they’re lured here by promises of a place to stay, a job, or an education. But once they arrive, the trafficker will coerce them, possibly by stealing their passport or telling them they must pay off an insurmountable debt. Sometimes victims are so isolated they’re essentially imprisoned. 

One survivor came to America as a young man, escaping violence in his home country. A friend offered him a free place to stay, provided by the friend’s employer. Then the employer said he had to work for him to pay for his rent. He was forced to work in a franchise restaurant for five years before he learned enough English and American law to realize he was being trafficked, but he felt trapped because knew he’d be killed if he went back to his home country. During those five years, no one asked him, “Are you okay?” 

Working with the nonprofit Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) and local human trafficking survivors, the Port trained airport workers to spot potential trafficking situations. Some of the signs include that the alleged victim doesn’t speak for themselves, seems distressed or injured, or that they don’t seem to know the person with whom they are traveling. 

Port of Seattle Police Commander Sean Gillebo reported that a ticket agent at SEA identified two women traveling together who didn’t seem to know each other. The agent contacted the police who then questioned them. At the boarding gate the suspected trafficker abandoned the younger woman and got on the plane, leaving the potential victim confused and not sure what she should do. Later, authorities learned she had been offered a modeling job in New York that was not a legitimate job offer. Ultimately, the young woman was reunited with her family. 

If you see someone whom you think might be a trafficking victim and they are alone, ask them calmly, “Are you okay?” If they need help, ask them if they’d like you to call the police. Or you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 to get them services. In an emergency, always call 911. 

Yes, human trafficking is still all around us. But we can do something about it by keeping our eyes open, gently asking if the potential victim is okay, and helping them contact the right authorities.

The 2021 World Day Against Trafficking in Persons is on July 30. Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall into the hands of traffickers, in their own countries and abroad. Almost every country in the world is affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims.

Stephanie Bowman is a Port of Seattle commissioner and executive director of Washington ABC, a statewide nonprofit that helps low-income Washingtonians build assets to gain financial stability and move into the middle class.

Mar Brettmann, Ph.D., is the CEO and executive director of Businesses Ending Slavery & Trafficking (BEST), a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that educates employers on human trafficking and creates pathways to employment for survivors.

📸 Featured image is attributed to duncan c (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC 2.0 license).

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