JANUARY IS HUMAN Trafficking Prevention Month. For frontline transportation workers and anyone who travels through major hubs, knowing the signs of trafficking can save lives. Have you ever seen someone holding the passports for many people together? Or seen a person on a cold winter with shorts and flip flops and having a disoriented look? A nervous person with fearful eyes at the bus or metro station? Or small children selling magazines on transportation vehicles during the day instead of being at school?

Dr. Kezban Yagci Sokat is an assistant professor of business analytics at San Jose State University and a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute. (SJSU)

If you have answered yes to any of these questions, there is a good chance that you might have come across a potential human trafficking victim or trafficker. Did you know that you could have intervened safely? By contacting the national hotline, contacting the operator or a rider safety app if that option is available.

Recognition and prevention start from awareness and training. Though the definition might change by geography, human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit. Human trafficking does not discriminate for gender, ethnicity, age, origin, or citizenship. A common misconception is that human trafficking only happens in developing countries, not in the U.S.

But according to the National Hotline, which tracks the potential cases of human trafficking in the U.S. through a tip line, 38 percent of the reports are of U.S. citizens or legally permitted residents. In fact, especially in certain locations, such as Arkansas and Minnesota, the majority of human trafficking victims are local Americans. Unfortunately, what most of us do not realize is human trafficking is in everywhere in everyday of our lives. You might come across it at or around the bus stop, the market or even in your kids’ school.

Transportation workers on the front line

A first of its kind study, “Understanding the Role of Transportation in Combating Human Trafficking in California” supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and administered through MTI’s Mineta Consortium for Transportation Mobility, shows the extensive role of transportation in combating human trafficking as transportation is heavily used to recruit, transport and control victims. Study participants commonly refer to the transportation personnel as “eyes and ears of the community” with their ability to recognize the signs of human trafficking in every day lives.

One participant in the study said of transportation personnel, “They have the potential to recognize and stop or prevent human trafficking. Checkpoints, rest stops, routine traffic stops. As a survivor, I had contact with law enforcement, Department of Agriculture, DOT, and highway patrol and none of them recognized me as being in a trafficking situation. Those were 5 opportunities for rescue. (Survey Respondent 18)”

Recognition and prevention start from awareness and training, as well as through recently-passed legislation like AB 2034 of California, which requires transit frontline employees to receive at least 20 minutes of training on how to identify and report signs of human trafficking. These trainings are crucial for California as it will host some of the world’s largest sporting events, including the 2026 World Cup and 2028 Summer Olympics.

Training front line transportation workers to spot human trafficking activity is crucial for California as it will host some of the world’s largest sporting events, including the 2026 World Cup and 2028 Summer Olympics. Above, Korea and Uruguay compete during the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 24, 2022. (Republic of Korea/Flickr, CC BY-SA)

One way to address human trafficking through the transportation industry and be prepared for these crucial activities is to collect and analyze data. Unfortunately, only 17 percent of the participants are aware of the efforts to collect transportation related data in human trafficking. However, collecting and sharing perpetrator information among organizations, monitoring the training level of personnel, and tracking the recent trends on the transportation would highly benefit in addressing human trafficking in a timely manner.

Each organization and modality would have their own way of collecting this information. An intermodal exchange of this information and collaboration with law enforcement and service providers could increase identification of trafficking cases and support victims accordingly. While doing so, the transportation industry should ensure that they are accountable for their employees, making sure that they are not victims or perpetrators of human trafficking.

What individuals can do

What can you can do to help with the fight as an everyday citizen? First, educate yourself for the signs of human trafficking and how to report it safely if you come across it. While we all want to help, we don’t need heroes at the expense of the safety of the reporter, potential victim, and/or the public.

Second, utilize local efforts. There is a good chance that you have a local human trafficking task force. Learn about their training opportunities.

Third, make sure to advocate for survivors by supporting them to have a voice on the policies and best practices. For example, ask your company to provide support for survivor organizations.

We all can be the eyes and ears of the community safely to combat this inhumane crime!

About the author

Dr. Kezban Yagci Sokat is a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project in partnership with San José State University, where she is an Assistant Professor of Business Analytics at Lucas College of Business. She is a Research Associate at Mineta Transportation Institute and a member of the United States Department of Transportation Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking Research and Data Subcommittee.