Charity Spotlight: Innocents at Risk Takes to the Skies

by John Arundel

They are the littlest victims, the two million children sold into the sex trade each year. The number is staggering: Over four children per minute. Innocents at Risk is trying to change that by innovative approaches such as working with Airlines and Flight Attendants.

By John Arundel

Laurie Curtis, VP of American Airlines, Nancy Rivard, founder of Airline Ambassadors, Rep. Chris Smith and Deborah Sigmund. Courtesy Photo.

Laurie Curtis, VP of American Airlines, Nancy Rivard, founder of Airline Ambassadors, Rep. Chris Smith and Deborah Sigmund. Courtesy Photo.

Despite representing a beacon for freedom and democracy throughout the world, Washington, D.C. is a major destination city for child trafficking, says Deborah Sigmund, the founder and president of Innocents at Risk, a non-profit based in Georgetown.

Last month, Sigmund and a group of foreign envoys and reps from the State Department, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and American Airlines presented to Congress on the work they have been doing to raise awareness about human trafficking on flights and streamlining the process of reporting trafficking situations.

September is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and Sigmund, a leader in the movement, has enlisted some high-powered, like-minded company in her cause. Attending the July 1 briefing were Congressmen Frank Wolfe, Joe Pitts, Trent Franks, Cathy Rodgers McMorris, and Sigmund’s lead voice on the Hill, Rep. Chris Smith.

Smith opened his remarks about how cooperation between “trailblazing” groups like Innocents at Risk and other non-governmental organizations are pivotol to raising awareness of the issue.

On Capitol Hill, looking after the littlest of victims. Courtesy Photo.

On Capitol Hill, looking after the littlest of victims. Courtesy Photo.

Amy O’Neill Richard, the senior advisor to the director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department, highlighted the tenth anniversary of both the UN trafficking protocol and the TIP report, which for the first time includes the United States.

Richard emphasized the new four-P paradigm: prevention of trafficking, protection of victims, prosecution of criminals, and most recently, partnership of NGO’s, governmental agencies and companies to combat human trafficking. She suggested that airlines continue to maintain a zero-tolerance policy on trafficking and implored airlines and their contractors to do the same.

“They should talk about this issue at trade shows, with TSA articles, on their web sites and in public service announcements,” Richard suggested. “They should provide free travel for victims and hire trafficking survivors.”

Richard commended Rep. Smith for his leadership on the issue, and praised Jet Blue and AirFrance for their efforts to raise awareness, encouraging all companies to “adopt an industry-driven, responsible tourism code that commits travel employers to train employees and raise public awareness.”

Erik P. Breitzke, Unit Chief of the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, emphasized the difference between alien smuggling, which involves illegal movement, and human trafficking, which is exploitation-based.

“Human trafficking has more severe penalties, but is harder to police because exploitation must occur and be on American soil for smuggling to become a trafficking situation,” Breitzke said. “Aliens however are an incredibly vulnerable population with little protection, and many don’t realize they are victims or do not know how to get help.

Breitzke closed by stressing the importance of partnership and leveling a multi-discipline approach to the issue of human trafficking. “It is difficult to know the effectiveness of ICE, because they want to address vulnerable populations before exploitation occurs,” he concluded. “That is where organizations like Innocents at Risk and other NGO’s come into play.”

Christopher Dombek,
Director of the Office of Alien Smuggling Interdiction for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, spoke as well of the importance of partnership.

He explained how Sigmund approached him with the issue of how to report human trafficking in the air. “Before, airline personnel were only able to report suspected trafficking to a TSA agent after leaving the plane, leaving only seconds to react before the criminal escaped,” Dombek said. “This made it very difficult to

Nancy Rivard, Rep. Chris Smith and Debbie Sigmund. Courtesy Photo.

Nancy Rivard, Rep. Chris Smith and Debbie Sigmund. Courtesy Photo.

actually intervene.”

However, working in a series of meetings with Innocents at Risk, CBP was able to work out a means for flight attendants to report trafficking directly to ICE or the national hotline (1-888-3737-888), which is now run by the Polaris Project, giving authorities hours to learn details about the incidence and prepare to intervene effectively. They are now working on a unified system of codes in order to make reports more informative and efficient.

Nancy Rivard, is president and founder of Airline Ambassadors, a humanitarian relief organization that escorts kids who need medical care, puts vulnerable children in safehouses, and is the only independent relief organization in the world.

Airlines Ambassadors teamed up with Innocents at Risk when Rivard saw an article about Sigmund and invited her to a training session.

Rivard spoke passionately about the power that a few educated individuals have to save children from trafficking. On a recent mission to orphanages in the Dominican Republic, Rivard, Sigmund and others were able to spot and assist the flight attendants in reporting three incidences of trafficking.

“Just on one flight we urged all airlines to adopt corporate social responsibility commitments for their company, and to put into place emergency procedure training on trafficking, as well as ensure crew briefing, and provide information in bulletins and in-flight media about what trafficking looks like and what you can do to stop it,” Rivard said.

Rivard also encourages airline travelers to observe who is on each flight, and to be especially aware of children and young women traveling alone. “Just one non-confrontational conversation about what they are doing can give you a lot of insight as to whether this situation is right.” she said.

In her Congressional testimony, Sigmund spoke eloquently about the work that has been done on the initiative, and all that can be done to continue to change the way trafficking is fought.

Sigmund launched the Flight Attendant Initiative in June 2008, as well as a key partnership with Airline Ambassadors. Sigmund thanked Rep. Smith and Rep. James Oberstar, chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, for hosting the briefing on how to save lives by fighting human trafficking in the air.

“Innocents at Risk began the Flight Attendant initiative when American Senior Flight Attendant Sandra

Debbie Sigmund, far right, testifies before a House subcommittee. Courtesy Photo.

Debbie Sigmund, far right, testifies before a House subcommittee. Courtesy Photo.

Fiorini heard about Innocents at Risk through our awareness and educational community outreach programs,” Sigmund said. “Sandra came to us with valuable information and we learned that an incredible amount of trafficking was taking place via commercial flights. This was a major breakthrough! A task force of flight attendants led by Sandra was formed, and Innocents at Risk sprang into action.”

Innocents at Risk produced a basic brochure, “Protecting Women and Children from Human Trafficking,” a guide to teach flight attendants how to respond to potential human trafficking situations in airports and on airplanes. The brochure also contains the National Human Trafficking hotline number, 1-888-373-7888, which is operated by the Polaris Project.

“As the flight attendants initiative grew, we were able to hear and pass to authorities valuable information about human trafficking,” Sigmund said.

For example, Sigmund said that airline flight personnel informed her that twice a week young girls were boarding flights to Chicago for Moscow with one way tickets who were told they would be ‘models’ or ‘work in TV’ in New York City.

Working together, Sandra Fiorini and Innocents at Risk were able to inform the hotline and DHS/ICE.

“Soon an ICE Agent was on the flight, a criminal operation was uncovered and girls were rescued,” Sigmund saud. “This is what just one flight attendant can do to save innocent lives. Think of all we could do if we got all 90,000 flight attendants worldwide on board! These truly are an army of angels who want to help our effort.”

In January, 2009, John Ingham, director of HSTC, learned of the Flight Attendant Initiative. He assembled together the correct players from DHS, ICE and the FBI to meet with an American Airlines representative, Mike Wascom, The Polaris Project, Fiorini and Innocents at Risk to discuss how to mobilize “this incredible resource” of flight attendants, which Sigmund calls “our first line of defense” against human trafficking.

As the Flight Attendant Initiative gained strength and momentum, Sigmund said that Innocents at Risk started getting more governmental attention and support.

In March 2009, her initiative became the “Blue Lightning Campaign.”

Three months later, Sigmund and other Innocents at Risk officials met again to discuss the Blue Lightening Code of Conduct, which was based on the ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes Code of Conduct) established to protect children from sexual exploitation in travel and tourism.

“It was a tremendous accomplishment,” Sigmund said, applauding American Airlines in particular for coming to the discussion table and also lauding the leadership of John Ingham for establishing a coalition to establish a protocol to expand this talented force of individuals and agencies.

The Flight Attendants Initiative continued to expand. In July, 2009, Sigmund met Rivard at a mission training in Miami. Her purpose was to brief Rivard and the attending flight attendants on the “Blue Lightning” initiative.

“Nancy and the Airline Ambassadors were eager to join forces in our growing battle to fight human trafficking,” Sigmund said. “It brings a vital work force of over 6,000 members and corporate partners dedicated to preventing trafficking around the world. With their focus on ending child trafficking, we have already had some major successes. I have personally witnessed how quickly law enforcement responds to the calls by flight attendants. When reports come in to the hotline, ICE agents come immediately to meet the plane as it reaches the ground. This lightning-fast response is helping to save lives.

However, Sigmund that this represents only a fraction of children who could be saved from slavery. “We need to do more!” she says.

To date, Innocents at Risk has provided airline personnel with thousands of brochures and blue hot-line wrist bands supported only by private and corporate sponsors.

Sigmund’s ambition? To train all 90,000 flight attendants worldwide and all airline personnel.

“We are asking the airlines to incorporate Human Trafficking training into their basic annual airline training and to help us educate passengers with acceptable trafficking information in in-flight magazines,” Sigmund said. “Together, we can open thousands of eyes to this horror, and take control of the airways, to form an impenetrable defense that will protect children everywhere.”

In September, The Embassy of Canada is hosting a VIP reception for Innocents at Risk at the Embassy of Canada, and on October 23 is sponsoring a Walk to Combat Trafficking. Get involved at

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