M.V. Airport fights human trafficking by raising awareness

Even in a seemingly peaceful place like Martha’s Vineyard, vigilance is needed for human trafficking cases.

The Martha's Vineyard Airport has been raising awareness to the flying public about human trafficking. — Eunki Seonwoo

President Joe Biden proclaimed January as National Human Trafficking Prevention Month on Thursday, Dec. 30, a presidential tradition that began in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of State website. The website said the month is dedicated to “raising awareness about the different forms of human trafficking, also known as modern slavery, and educating people about this crime and how to spot it.”

On the Island, the Martha’s Vineyard Airport seeks to raise awareness about human trafficking.

Martha’s Vineyard Airport director Geoff Freeman said the airport is partnered with two programs to raise awareness about human trafficking: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Blue Campaign, and the Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) alliance. Freeman wanted the airport to help victims of human trafficking to “know that there is an out,” and help is available.

The airport joined the Blue Campaign about a year ago, according to Freeman, and has been providing information about human trafficking to the public. In particular, the airport is a part of the Blue Lightning Initiative, a joint effort between U.S. Customs and Border Protection (a DHS component agency) and the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

“We partnered with them as they reached out to other airports to help get the word out to the flying public about human trafficking,” Freeman said. “It’s one of those things that’s in the shadows, and people need to know that it does exist in all cities and all towns.”

The initiative involved having posters in various places in the airport, such as at booths and restrooms, alongside training for airport staff, which consisted of short videos and cards with the right numbers to call. The training gives airport staff tools to be aware of the “telltale signs” of people involved in trafficking, whether that be victims or perpetrators, and find ways to intervene. Freeman said traffickers may use force, fraud, coercion, or other methods to control victims, and these are the types of “red flags” he and his staff keep an eye out for. 

“We don’t want to be blankly accusing people of things, but we do want to be aware. If we feel something is wrong, we should investigate it,” Freeman said.

Another factor leading to Freeman’s decision to implement was to educate people on what to look out for. ”You can learn a lot of what’s going on and say, ‘Wow, maybe that is happening here.’ It’s all walks of life that are involved in it. We do have high-profile people. Just looking at what’s been happening in the news over the past few years with the Jeffrey Epstein case, a lot of people are involved,” he said, and not necessarily only the sex trade. Others include the work slavery trade. “There’s potential [for it] here, and it can happen in any town.”

Freeman said there was actually an incident last summer in which law enforcement was contacted because airport staff noticed the “red flags.” 

“It was through people who have received the training, and law enforcement was involved,” Freeman said. Law enforcement officers at the destination airport questioned the suspects. “Thankfully, it was not human trafficking, but some of those flags did arise of that nature.”

The airport also joined the BEST alliance during the fall of 2021 to gear up for 2022 National Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Additionally, Freeman thought using both DHS and BEST awareness campaign programs would boost the airport’s ability to help people be aware of human trafficking signs and how to report them. This reasoning is from the two organizations’ different approaches to messaging: government and business. 

Aviation is a ”conduit of trafficking,” Freeman said. However, other modes of transportation, such as the Steamship Authority (SSA) ferries, buses, and trains off-Island, are also conduits for these crimes. “I hope the Steamship Authority is involved in it, and other modes of transportation, too. I think people need to see what’s hidden in the shadows,” Freeman said. 

SSA communications director Sean Driscoll told the Times the ferry service had “not been approached for such a partnership, but would be more than willing to do so if asked.” Driscoll said this is the first time he has really heard about “this specific partnership.” So he cannot say definitively whether the SSA would join the Blue Campaign or BEST, “but we will investigate to see how we can be of help.” 

The posters at the airline booths in the airport list four primary indicators of human trafficking victims: no control of travel identification or documents, no freedom of movement or social interaction, difficulty articulating reasonable or logical travel plans, and a nongenuine relationship (particularly parent/guardian-child).

“Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act,” the poster reads. “Any minor (under the age of 18) engaged in commercial sex is a victim of human trafficking, according to federal law, regardless of whether there is force, fraud, or coercion.”

If one notices something is wrong while on the ground, suspected human trafficking can be reported to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at 1-866-347-2423 if in the U.S. or Canada, or at 1-802-872-6199 if international. In an emergency situation, call 911. While in-flight, follow the airline’s reporting protocol to inform flight deck communications, which are “aircraft communications addressing and reporting system or domestic event network.” As the last resort, notify the federal air marshal without compromising their anonymity. If one is a victim of human trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-866-373-7888, or text “help” or “info” to BeFree (233733).

For more information, visit the Blue Campaign website at dhs.gov/blue-campaign and the BEST alliance website at bestalliance.org/consultation.html