Kyiv Post

29 November 2013

By Christopher Smith

In Kyiv this June, I took part in something extraordinary. It was something that will undoubtedly help pull hundreds of vulnerable women, men and children from the jaws of modern-day slavery. With wider, regional implementation, it has the potential to save thousands more.

That extraordinary event was a simple training exercise on combating human trafficking that I, as the Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, helped organize with the Ukrainian government. Flight attendants, customs officials, airport police and airline representatives received instruction on how to spot both the victims and perpetrators of trafficking as it happens. These members of Ukraine's aviation sector became the first civil employees in Europe to get this kind of training. The cost, in both time and money, is low. The benefits, enormous.

On Dec. 5-6, Kyiv is hosting foreign ministers and other top officials from the 57 countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Ukraine holds the organization's chairmanship this year, and the battle against trafficking is one of the focuses of its tenure. As attendees take stock of the progress made and the challenges ahead, my message to all OSCE countries is this: Let's make training programs like the one I joined in Ukraine a standard practice. With a little encouragement from government leaders, states can make their transportation industries critical allies in the fight against the scourge of human trafficking.

The scope of the problem is sobering. Experts estimate that between 600,000 and 800,000 trafficking victims are moved across international borders each year. Some are killed for their organs. Others have their identities ripped away as they become pawns in the sex trade. Millions of others are forced laborers, leading lives of misery while their captors bribe officials to turn a blind eye. Ukraine has seen well over 100,000 of its citizens fall victim to trafficking since independence. But there are also some key opportunities to interfere with traffickers' plans that all nations must take advantage of.

Victims often travel to destination countries, or are moved domestically, on commercial airplanes, trains, and buses where they come into contact with transportation personnel. That puts those personnel in a unique position. Flight attendants, especially on long flights, have a prime opportunity to observe a potential trafficking in progress and then call a trafficking hotline or inform the pilot to radio ahead so that the proper authorities intervene once on the ground. What we need is to train these professionals in situational awareness, give them the confidence to know what to do in such cases, and establish the hotlines they'll need.

After the conference in Kyiv, I introduced my Resolution on Trafficking Victim Watchfulness to OSCE parliamentarians. The measure called on countries to collaborate with commercial carriers, adopting legislation where necessary, to ensure that all transportation professionals who may come into contact with a trafficking victim are trained to identify the victim and respond according to a protocol established with law enforcement.

That may require establishing regional, not just national, anti-trafficking hotlines for reporting potential victims. Such an approach may prove essential in the OSCE region, where victims from countries such as Russia and China are often trafficked across several borders.

The resolution also called for governments to work more closely with hotels on anti-trafficking training programs. Hospitality personnel, too, have a critical chance to disrupt traffickers' plans if they are equipped with the training to do so.

Parliamentarians from Vancouver to Vladivostok threw their support behind the resolution at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's annual session this summer. Now we must realize our commitments.

The good news is that countries looking to take action are not alone. Several industry leaders have emerged and developed best practices in the area of trafficking-victim watchfulness. Airlines such as Delta and American Airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, as well as several train service providers, have begun human-trafficking-prevention activities.

Hotel chains such as Hilton Worldwide, Hyatt, Accor, and many others have committed to training their employees. Non-governmental organizations, such as Airline Ambassadors, are developing anti-trafficking guidelines and providing resources to assist businesses with anti-trafficking measures. All the tools are available at very low cost, if any.

More good news is that when a government partners with its transportation and hospitality industries against trafficking, there's a significant add-on value -- the chilling effect. The very fact that more people in the travel and hospitality industries will be trained eye-witnesses, able to spot and report traffickers -- and as the pimps and exploiters get caught and jailed -- will prompt a frustration in their trade.

The result will be a profound chilling effect on traffickers' ability to move their victims. The current-day risk to a trafficker of getting caught transporting a victim is pathetically small. And they know it. We can and must change that.

Of course, states must also never lose sight of the need to tackle human trafficking at its roots. OSCE parliamentarians this year urged countries to redouble their efforts to eliminate the demand for victims. As we work toward that lofty goal, let us do all that we can today. Training the people who can alert authorities to traffickers in the act is a logical and vital step to take.

For the millions suffering as trafficking victims today and for the millions of potential victims, complacency is simply not an option.

U.S. Congressman Christopher Smith is a senior member of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs and co-chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission. He serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's Special Representative on Human Trafficking Issues.