Globally, the crisis of human trafficking is raging on, fuelled by the mass displacement of people seeking refuge from political instability, armed violence and terrorism.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that last year, an estimated 25 million victims were trapped in modern-day slavery. The vast majority of victims of sexual exploitation (74%) were living outside their country of origin, which means that in many cases, they were smuggled across borders. Historically, human trafficking and associated forms of abuse and exploitation flourish along key migration routes, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has found.

Now, criminal gangs are taking advantage of Europe’s migration crisis to force more people into sex work and other types of slavery, according to an EU report, with children becoming the prime target.

Eradicating human trafficking is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the aviation industry is often seen as the first line of defence against people smuggling. From pilots to air cabin crew, ground staff and airport operators, as well as passengers, there is an increased sense of awareness and shared responsibility to be vigilant, recognise the signs, and report any suspicious activity to the authorities.

When air cabin staff can turn into heroes

At the beginning of 2017, a gripping news story of a quick-acting flight attendant made headlines around the world. Shelia Fedrick, an Alaska Airlines crew member, spotted an unkempt and terrified looking young girl sitting next to a well-dressed older man on a flight from Seattle to San Francisco. Fedrick followed her instincts and left the girl a message on the bathroom mirror, which the victim used to ask for help, leading to her rescue on landing.

However, this isn’t the first time that an air cabin crew member has seen these scenes unfold.

The situation is reminiscent of the tragic testimony of Sandra Fiorini, an international flight attendant with American Airlines, who testified in 2010 in front of the Human Rights Commission on Human Trafficking.

Fiorini said that throughout her career, she witnessed many instances of the crime, describing a flurry of young girls being trafficked out of Russia on false career promises; an 18-year-old man travelling with a newborn baby with nothing more than one bottle and two diapers as luggage; and children of the same age but different nationalities accompanied by different adults.

Some of tell-tale red flags staff are told to look out for include the traveller not being able to speak for themselves, or name their origin or destination, lacking luggage or appropriate items of clothing for the weather, as well as any signs of physical and psychological abuse.

“More airlines are getting involved in initiatives to fight human trafficking.”

The horrors of human trafficking, as well as the responsibility of airlines, have surfaced again in recent years as part of global summits and industry conferences.

The 2017 Global Sustainable Aviation Summit, hosted in Geneva by the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), dedicated a workshop to finding ways in which aviation stakeholders can assist enforcement authorities in combating the illegal wildlife trade and human trafficking.

Similarly, the issue came up during the 73rd International Air Transport Association (IATA) Annual General Meeting and World Air Transport Summit.

Speaking at the summit, UNODC director of the division for policy analysis and public affairs Jean-Luc Lemahieu urged governments and law enforcement agencies to step up efforts to identify, investigate and prosecute those perpetrating this crime. Lemahieu also acknowledged that more airlines are getting involved in initiatives to fight human trafficking.

UN aviation group rises to the challenge

To date, more than 70,000 personnel in the aviation industry have been trained through the Blue Lightning Initiative (BLI), led by the Department of Homeland Security, US Customs and Border Protection, and the Department of Transportation. Other similar projects around the world come from airports and airlines themselves, who pursue training schemes for in-house staff.

But a more harmonised, standardised approach has long been needed.

The conversation was reignited in 2016 by the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016, which required air carriers to provide initial and annual flight attendant training regarding recognising and responding to potential human trafficking victims.

“From our perspective, it’s the United States that kind of got the ball rolling,” says Martin Maurino, safety, efficiency and operations officer with the Air Navigation Bureau and secretary for the ICAO Cabin Safety Group (ICSG).

Maurino was approached by United Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shortly after the act’s introduction, asking for guidance from ICAO on how to train their staff.

“My original thought was that it’s not within ICAO’s mandate to deal with what is essentially a human rights violation, but they were very keen to have some guidelines. Through our Secretary General [Dr. Fang Liu], we’re also encouraged to look at issues more from the UN perspective, not just what we do at ICAO, but as part of the bigger UN family,” he says.

As such, Maurino reached out to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Geneva, and asked their human trafficking expert if they would be interested in doing a joint project with ICAO.

A harmonised approach

Now, the association is developing a comprehensive set of guidelines that address what cabin crew should know in the event of a suspected incident.

“There’s a lot of variation and each country has their national laws and those things need to be adapted, but we want to have a standardised manual,” Maurino says.

“We’re going to develop a free online training course, for when an airline doesn’t actually have the means, time and expertise to develop their own training. And we are also looking to develop a short video that can be shown on board airlines just to sensitise the travelling public to encourage them to be a little more vigilant,” he adds.

The training will also be directed at pilots, who need to know who to contact on the ground in case of an incident.

“A more harmonised, standardised approach has long been needed.”

The new programme, to be launched in spring 2018 at a Geneva-based summit, will be implemented first by Canadian airline Sky Regional, also a member of ICSG.

“As more of these cases come up in the media, I think people are more vigilant,” Maurino says. “[But] we don’t want passengers who want to be a hero, try to intervene or try to rescue victims. We don’t want them to put themselves in harm’s way.

“It’s the same with the cabin crew and the training we give them: be discreet, don’t raise suspicion, all they need to do is relay the information so the authorities can be notified and then detain the person that they think is of concern.”