As the 2014 Super Bowl approaches, officials from government and private agencies gathered in Washington, D.C., to testify about prevention measures against the grave threat of human sex trafficking.
“In less than a week, New Jersey will be hosting the Super Bowl,” explained Rep. Chris Smith (R.-N.J.) at a Jan. 27 hearing, “and along with welcoming enthusiastic fans, the state also is preparing for a likely influx of both domestic and international traffickers.”
Smith, who leads the House subcommittee dealing with global human rights, chaired the hearing on efforts to fight human trafficking, particularly at large-scale sporting events, such as the Super Bowl and the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Luis CdeBaca, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Trafficking in Persons, noted the gravity of human trafficking in the 21st century, describing it as “nothing short of modern day slavery.”
The U.S. State Department's 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report found that up to 27 million individuals were victims of human trafficking during the previous year, with hundreds of thousands moved over international borders against their will to perform sexual or manual labor.
Human trafficking is a prevalent phenomenon throughout the world, CdeBaca said, including in the United States. However, the U.S. government “is galvanized in our commitment” to fighting the problem, with bipartisan efforts and partnerships underway for more than a decade.
The ambassador hopes awareness initiatives surrounding the Super Bowl will aid in long-term work to prevent global human trafficking, a year-round problem that “does not go away when the stadium lights are dimmed.”
He noted that Russia, host of the upcoming Olympic Winter Games, was classified by the State Department in 2013 as a Tier 3 country – the worse level of human trafficking offender.
Pointing to continued “reports of women and children exploited in sex trafficking in Russia,” he cautioned that the problem could escalate as tourists and money flow into the country for the games.
Transportation experts and officials also testified at the hearing to explain how victims of human trafficking are moved and manipulated.
“Every year, millions of men, women, and children worldwide – including in the United States – are victims of human trafficking,” stressed Maria Odom, chair of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Blue Campaign to prevent human trafficking.
She explained that victims span a wide range of race, age, ethnicity, sex and nationality backgrounds. They are exploited and coerced into compelled labor or commercial sex acts, often through force or fraud. Some are promised better-paying jobs; others are manipulated by family members.
Nancy Rivard, founder and president of Airline Ambassadors International, described the work done by American Airlines to help educate flight personnel on how to identify human trafficking situations.
However, she added that the airline and broader transportation industry needs a more robust, integrated approach to addressing the problem through training and passenger awareness.
She pointed out that the airline companies “have infrastructure to provide training to flight crew at virtually no cost during annual emergency procedure trainings,” and suggested that tools and protocol could be better and more consistently utilized.
Holly Smith, who became a victim of human trafficking at age 14, also testified at the hearing, describing her experience and urging better education and rehabilitation programs to help victims recover.
“Within hours of running away...I was forced into prostitution on the streets and in the casino hotels and motels of Atlantic City, New Jersey,” she said.
“Thirty-six hours later, I was arrested by police and treated like a criminal. Without appropriate aftercare services, I struggled for many years to overcome my victimization. I struggled with depression, drug abuse, and domestic violence.”
With the Feb. 2 Super Bowl approaching, Rep. Smith explained that authorities have been working to fight the major human trafficking potential that accompanies the event.
The state's Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness has been distributing informational pamphlets to emergency workers “so that these front line professionals will know when to be concerned that someone is a trafficking victim and how to respond appropriately.”
In addition, a trafficking identification training program for airlines is being expanded to other transportation officials, such as “bus drivers and station operators, train conductors, trucking associations, and other transportation industry professionals,” Smith said.
He called for “zero tolerance” standards to be “rigorously and faithfully enforced by arrests” of human trafficking perpetrators.
“And there can be no higher priority than the liberation and protection of the victims,” he affirmed. “Combating human trafficking must be continuously prioritized at all levels of government, the faith community, civil society and corporations, including the National Football League.”