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The Seamy Side of Flying

It is the biggest, fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. And to make matters worse, only one-tenth of 1 percent of the criminals are ever brought to justice.

Welcome to the world of the $32 billion business known as child trafficking, our 21st century version of slavery. It may involve young boys sold off to work 16 hours a day as laborers, with no rights, no income and no means of escape, or young girls and boys sold off by their parents to a desperate, violent world of child prostitution.

Last week, I flew to Egypt as one of the speakers at a global forum with the the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (GIFT) and Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. It brought together everyone from royalty (the princesses of Belgium and Bahrain) to Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore; from the CEO of Exxon to Mira Sorvino; from the secretary general of Interpol to the Aga Khan.

They were all in Luxor to mobilize against child trafficking and to work towards public-private partnerships to save thousands and thousands of children around the world.

And indirectly -- but not insignificantly -- many business travelers are not only involved, but can also be part of the fight against this crime.

Human trafficking depends on the travel process, as well as the travel business in order to thrive.

As travelers, we have a distinct role to play in terms of how we do our business, where we do our business, and our general awareness level every time we travel.

Every time we fly, stay in a hotel, purchase something in a foreign country, we may be supporting a process, or a business fueled by human trafficking.

Already, some hotels are doing something. They've signed a pledge of ethics stating that they will not do business with any vendor involved with human trafficking. This ranges from clothing manufacturers, food suppliers, to those who provide in-room entertainment. Carlson hotels was the first major chain to support this code of corporate behavior. Accor hotels has also signed on.

But few other hotels have stepped up to the plate. Why? Because of the dirty little secret known as hotel bottom-line revenue. Other than room rate and the minibar, one of the largest sources of hotel profits is pornographic movies on in-room TVs. And so much of the pornographic movie business is tied to human trafficking.

The list of human trafficking abuses is nearly endless.

"I'd like all of you to look at your watches right now," said Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak. "Just a second from now, a woman will be trafficked into the sex trade and will move into the world of shadows unknown to us. She will become a lady of the evening at the age of 12, or even younger. Another child will be sold off to work in the coal and diamond mines. This will be their short life until they can lift and dig no more. Or a child will go to sleep, and then wake up and discover that his kidney has been sold and bartered in the open market."

Then there's the awareness level. Earlier this year, a man showed up at an airport with a young boy. He checked him in for a US Airways flight from Washington to West Palm Beach. The ticket counter agent didn't say a word when the man couldn't tell him the name of the boy. No alarms were raised when the child remarked that he thought he was going to North Carolina.

But a passenger standing behind the two did notice the weird behavior. Initially, no one at the airport or the airline did anything. But during the flight, she alerted the flight crew, an alert was radioed ahead, and when the plane landed in Florida, the man was arrested.

Some tips to remember


  • The next time you fly, if you see children being checked in for the flight who seem confused or disoriented, or don't know where they're going, alert someone.

  • When you get to your hotel, ask if the individual hotel or its parent chain has signed a code of ethics and behavior that conforms to the UN protocols on human trafficking.

  • Does your hotel pre-screen its suppliers?

  • When your hotel concierge recommends a tailor overseas, who is making the clothes you buy? Under what conditions?

  • When you buy jewelry, or even order fish for dinner, find out who made the jewelry, and how was the fish caught, and by whom?

As travelers, and as global citizens, we have a responsibility every time we travel to not only be aware, but to ask the important questions. What questions would you add to the list?

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