Human trafficking eyes in the sky


Source: The Malay Mail Online

(From left) Airline Ambassadors International (AAI) president Nancy Rivard, American Airlines flight attendant Donna Hubbard and Alaska Airlines stewardess Andrea Hobart.Pic by The Malay Mail Online

SEPANG, Aug 29 — Airline staff can play a vital role to stop human trafficking in Southeast Asia and around the world, as they are at the front line of the fight against a crime which sees victims transported on major flights on a daily basis.

Airline Ambassadors International (AAI) president Nancy Rivard said air travel had become a popular human trafficking method because the mode left victims in the strong grip of traffickers.

“Picture this: A 10-year-old boy from a non-English speaking country is brought across international borders by his trafficker.

“He doesn’t understand what is going on, he is closely monitored by his trafficker, and his documentation is not with him.

“This child would be terrified for his life and the trafficker succeeds in smuggling yet another human,” Rivard said during a recent anti-trafficking roadshow orgarnised by AirAsia.Rivard, who has first-hand experience helping rescue a Cambodian human trafficking victim with AAI in 2009, said commercial air travel was also traffickers’ preferred choice as the mode reduced the chances of victims fleeing to find their way back to their country.

“They will hold on to each victim’s passport. When this happens, the victim would have little to no chance to return to their country of origin, which is exactly what the trafficker wants,” she said.

Rivard said it was important for airlines to train their flight attendants to understand the magnitude of the problem, and how a simple question like “Where are you going?” could lead to the discovery of a human trafficking case.

“It is estimated over 800,000 people are trafficked each year. If we remain uninformed, the number may increase. Thousands of victims could be trafficked right under our nose,” she said.

Andrea Hobart, an Alaska Airlines stewardess, suggested several tips for flight attendants to tackle a situation if they suspect a passenger is a victim.

She said it was as simple as initiating a non-threatening conversation.

“Sometimes the trafficker would have prepared a scripted answer for the victims to ensure they don’t blow the cover. Try posing the same question several times. Inconsistent answers could be one clue to look out for,” she said.

Hobart added the key to rescuing trafficking victims was by learning what to watch for and assessing signs like body language.

“Typically, victims avoid eye contact with attendants because they are afraid. They would try to remain inconspicuous.”

A simple sign such as a tattoo on a passenger’s body could also mean more than what it appears to be, added Hobart.

“In some cases, victims are ‘branded’ with a tattoo to signify they belong to someone. It could be a barcode, initials or a subtle gang sign,” she said.

Travellers at KL International Airport. It is estimated over 800,000 people are trafficked internationally each year.Pic by The Malay Mail Online

Another indicator is when a victim’s passport is in the possession of another passenger not their parent or family member.

“No other person is authorised by law to hold someone else’s passport. A passport under a name should stay in that person’s possession. In the case of children, the document should be with the parents. Anything else is questionable.”

American Airlines flight attendant Donna Hubbard, a human trafficking survivor herself, urged flight attendants everywhere to increase their efforts to combat the crime.

“Unlike other ‘commodities’, children can be sold several times over. As the eyes in the sky of the authorities, we have to know more than where the emergency escape routes are or how cute that passenger in seat 4F is. We hold the key to unlocking someone else’s freedom,” she said.

The human trafficking situation in Malaysia is “under control”, according to police.

Bukit Aman D7C CID principal assistant director ACP Maszeley Minhad said the country was a destination for Bangladeshis and a transit point for those headed to the Middle East.

“There is an increase in the number of people being smuggled into the country for forced labour in the plantation, industrial and food and services industries. But it is not anything we cannot control,” he said.

Malaysia slightly upgraded its position in the United States annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report released in June, climbing out of the Tier 2 Watch List.

However, it remains in Tier 2 for the third year in a row since it was promoted from the bottom tier in 2015.

Tier 2 is accorded to governments that do not fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.


― Try engaging the victim

― Assure the victim they are not “invisible”

― Remain calm and report to the pilot as the highest authority on board

― Keep close observations discreet

― Pilot will alert the control tower to relay the message to the authorities on the ground


― Don’t confront the trafficker on-board the flight

― Don’t display unusual concern which may alarm the trafficker

― Don’t try to rescue the victim on your own

― Don’t endanger yourself, the victim or other passengers on-board