Modern slavery is a global problem, estimated to be worth over $150 billion to criminals annually. It’s a hidden crime, but is happening in plain sight; adults or children are transported into forced labour or commercial sexual exploitation and an estimated 25 million victims are being held against their will. Human trafficking is commonplace globally and only 1–2% of traffickers are convicted. Within airports, there are numerous tactics that can be used to identify and react to the problem. First and foremost, the responsibility to spot potential victims lies with all airport staff and users.

Charlie Blythe is a manager for the A21 group, a non-profit organisation set up to tackle this disturbing problem, working with major airports including London Heathrow. Traffickers often use the travel and tourism industry as a facilitator, which means that everyone has a duty to act as the eyes and ears of an airport.

“There are lots of opportunities to spot trafficking,” she states. “Everyone plays a vital role, not just law enforcement, but also terminal staff, the check-in desk, cabin crew and general public. A passenger not knowing where they are going, or the address of where they’re staying, should be a red flag. Maybe the passenger isn’t aware who paid for their passage, they might only have a one-way ticket, be travelling without luggage for a lengthy trip or be dressed inappropriately for their destination.”

Cabin crew are exposed to passengers for a longer period of time and are therefore well placed to pick up on things that would not be immediately obvious to other airport and airline staff.

“They might get a hunch that travelling companions don’t know each other, or that a passenger doesn’t feel very comfortable, and staff can also play an important role,” Blythe explains. “If someone comes into the airport and meets different people all the time, or a frequent traveller regularly flies out with different people, this should raise suspicions; all staff can keep an eye out for unusual behaviour.”

We’re aware airline crew have limited spare time, so we run regular drop-in days at the airport where they can find out more.

Despite constant improvements to passport security, fake documentation is still a common tool used by human traffickers. In August, a huge Iranian human trafficking ring was broken, resulting in the arrest of more than 100 people. During that raid, forged passports and hundreds of blank identity cards were retrieved; some of the former were legitimate, but had been sold by their owners to the trafficking gang.

Blythe believes this is something all airline staff should be particularly vigilant about and that all staff have a responsibility to look out for someone travelling on fake documents.

Hidden crime

While many holidaymakers might be oblivious to this suffering as they await departure, A21 aims to raise awareness of the problem with the general public.

“People don’t know, but this is happening on their doorstep,” she says. “We put up posters and signs, whether that’s electronic boards with our ‘Can You See Me?’ campaign across the baggage area of Heathrow, or posters in the toilets or at border control. These are really important, because everyone travelling through the airport can see them.”

Can You See Me? raises awareness about everyday situations where people might come into contact with slavery or victims of trafficking. This enables the public to recognise signs of human trafficking and report instances of suspected incidents.

“Members of the public should report tips to national hotlines when they suspect trafficking,” Blythe explains. “An increase in reports will lead to an upsurge in victim identification and assistance.”

Gatwick Airport, with which Blythe has been working closely with for the past four years, is taking the problem seriously. The airport is committed to ensuring there is no modern slavery in any part of its business and to doing what it can to ensure that the airport is not used by human traffickers.

“Gatwick didn’t want to shy away from the issue, it wanted us to do everything in our power to tackle modern slavery,” she explains. “A21 runs professional training with terminal staff and the border force and its Can You See Me? campaign is visible across the North and South Terminals. Really successful awareness days are being run at arrivals, and a big booth has been set up in which we talk about modern slavery, and we speak to the general public in waiting areas and hand out literature about trafficking.

“We’re aware airline crew have limited spare time, so we run regular drop-in days at the airport where they can find out more information.”

Victim assistance is also a crucial part of A21’s remit: its operational strategy is to reach, rescue and restore lives affected by slavery and the organisation has achieved some success.

“When a potential victim is identified, they are often scared and might not trust law enforcement,” Blythe says. “Repatriation is really important. If they want to go back to their own country, we provide that support to them.

“About 80% of traffic victims are retrafficked when they exit their situation. Instead of just sending someone home we make sure that they’re getting there safely. We help them from pre-departure to post-arrival, whether that’s by booking tickets or flying with them. It’s a nerve-wracking time for victims.”

Blythe is effusive in her praise for the steps Gatwick Airport has put in place: “We have a great relationship with Gatwick Airport. We have air and landside passes so we can escort victims literally all the way on to the plane.

“The relationship over the past four years has seen us do lots of different things and has been really successful”

While many people think this is a problem that mainly affects foreigners, Charlie discloses that internal trafficking is a huge issue, too.

“People might be surprised to hear that the UK is third in the list of countries of origin of identified victims – another example of how modern slavery is a hidden crime, but is happening in plain sight,” she explains.

“We’ve also worked with victims from Romania, Albania, Vietnam, Nigeria, China, Poland and numerous other countries. We work with a lot of Bulgarian citizens that have been trafficked and we have a lot of repatriations back to Sofia in Bulgaria, and other places in Eastern Europe.”

Blythe says the best way to stop trafficking at airports is teaching all staff what to look for. Are they aware of what slavery is, what to look out for, what questions to ask? Do they know who to call if they suspect a crime is in progress? It is one thing to recognise what slavery is, it’s another to know what to do when you identify a potential slavery victim.

It’s therefore important to ensure all staff are trained, that they’re aware of the issue and they know what to do if they spot a potential victim.

Spot the signs

“We’re really passionate about educating the next generation so they know about these problems, so they’re equipped and empowered to do something,” she says.

“We have a team that goes into schools, colleges and universities, and they educate young people about the issues and equip them with the tools to identify potential trafficking themselves and do something about it.

“We also run more specialised educational packages, things like E-safety. We live in a digital society and are more connected than ever before, and that gives human traffickers another tool to use. We educate on some of the dangers and pitfalls of using the internet and social media. We speak about different recruitment methods, and how people are trafficked today. That’s all included in our programme.”

When asked about success stories, Charlie believes these often arise from multi-agency working. A21 runs operations involving numerous staff in the airport and work with the border force, with the local police and the National Crime Agency. The organisation also brings in interpreters and translators.

“We all work together on particular operations to identify potential victims of trafficking. Through multi-agency working, we have been able to identify victims of trafficking and we’ve had really successful repatriation stories.

“A21 has quite a wide reach – it has got 13 different offices around the globe, so has been able to get victims back to their home countries safely.”

For more information on A21 or human trafficking in the UK visit or email The modern slavery helpline is 08000 121 700.