DHS adviser finds a way to ground airborne human trafficking

Not all human trafficking takes place in trucks and boats. Sometimes perpetrators fly their victims around.

Not all human trafficking takes place in trucks and boats. Sometimes perpetrators fly their victims around. Federal Drive with Tom Temin interview guest led an effort by the Homeland Security and Transportation Departments to train aviation personnel — on the ground and in airplanes — how to identify potential victims of human trafficking. It’s called the Blue Lightning Initiative. And for Michael Camal’s work on Blue Lightning, he finds himself as a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals Program, aka the Sammies.

Interview Transcript:

Tom Temin And you work for Homeland Security, not DOT, correct?

Michael Camal That’s correct.

Tom Temin All right. Tell us about this program, Blue Lightening. What’s it all about?

Michael Camal So the Blue Lightning Initiative, it’s actually a joint effort with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Transportation. And basically what we do is we train aviation staff on what the indicators of human trafficking are and how to report it to federal law enforcement.

Tom Temin What are some of the indicators? I mean, you look on an airplane load nowadays and everybody looks a little suspect.

Michael Camal Well, when people think of human trafficking, they typically think of the most extreme cases. But oftentimes the indicators are very subtle. And the trafficking victims might look like your average traveler. However, every once in a while there’s little red flags and things that you can look out for. One example, is if someone doesn’t have control of their passport or their visa document. Another example, is maybe it doesn’t look like they have the freedom to do things that normal people have the freedom to do.

Tom Temin And just getting back to the documents point, someone else is controlling it like a big, bad Daddy-O type of person might be the one not letting that person have control of their own papers.

Michael Camal It could be an older person. It could be a man, could be a woman. And what’s usually a red flag is when the person looks like they’re old enough to carry the passport on their own or the identification.

Tom Temin Got it. All right. What else can people look out for?

Michael Camal Freedom of movement or social interaction? Let’s say a ticket counter agent is asking a question to someone, and that person could answer the question, but someone else steps in and answers for them. Another thing that is very important is a non-genuine relationship. And oftentimes this gets construed as just because a child looks different than the parent. That’s not necessarily the indicator. What the indicator is, what is the behavior? Does it look like that parent cares for the child? We’ve had cases where the traffickers will offer to pose as the victim’s parent just to get them through airport security.

Tom Temin Wow, all right. So you know what to look for. How do you then go about making sure that the chain of people that a traveler would encounter in aviation? How did you go about making sure that you can sensitize people to this information?

Michael Camal So that’s what the Blue Lightening Initiative is all about. We actually have a 25 minute training video that teaches about the indicators and also reporting. We secured a significant number of partnerships, 125 partnerships over the past several years. Just last year alone, we trained over 214,000 staff. And basically what we’re teaching them is the basics about what human trafficking is, what those indicators are, and how to safely report it to federal law enforcement.

Tom Temin What makes human trafficking go by air instead of by some other means? Is that a different objective of the trafficking?

Michael Camal It’s just one of the modes that traffickers can use. They can use busses, they can use rental cars, they can use cabs. Sometimes the human trafficking is happening within someone’s own home by family members. That’s called Familial trafficking. But what we found is that airports are a controlled environment where people can observe the indicators that they otherwise may not be able to observe. And airport employees and airline employees are in a very unique position to make a difference.

Tom Temin Right. We’re speaking with Michael Camal. He’s senior advisor at Homeland Security and a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals Program. Now, this training video, is this then available to the airlines and the airport authorities and all the other people that they can then retrain? Because it’s pretty hard for a couple of people at DOT and DHS to reach hundreds of thousands of people.

Michael Camal That’s right. It’d be impossible for us to reach the amount of people that we reach without our partners. So we have a memorandum of understanding. It’s a free partnership that we offer to all U.S. airlines and airports. And we recently just expanded so that now foreign airlines and airports can participate. And so they signed the partnership agreement, and then we give them the training and they train their staff, and then we’ll also do some other things through conferences and awareness events.

Tom Temin So the video is just part of the package that you have to offer.

Michael Camal Yes, that’s right. It’s just one piece of a whole collaborative effort. And another example is we have these indicator cards, these lanyard cards that will ship out to all of our partners and nationwide so that if a pilot or a flight attendant, if they see those indicators, they know exactly who to contact.

Tom Temin This idea kind of germinated from the fact that a pilot did spot something at one point. And that’s how you learn that perhaps, yeah, maybe other people could spot just as well as this particular pilot.

Michael Camal Well, that’s exactly the reason Homeland Security and Department of Transportation why we do what we do, because airline employees have the power. Had it not been for that pilot, Homeland Security would not have known about that victim. And what we’ve heard from survivors is this is happening more often than we think. Not only in the commercial airports, but also the small regional airports or private aviation occurs. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Jeffrey Epstein case. That was a big scenario where he would transport his victims through private air travel, and none of those stuff knew what to do or knew how to report it. Another big case with Homeland Security is the R. Kelly case. And he also transported his victims. But it’s not just famous people that travel through private air terminals, it’s other high wealth individuals. And so we’re trying to train not only commercial airport employees, but everyone, because you never know where this crime might happen.

Tom Temin Yeah, general aviation, it’s a lot looser and it’s more casual and people come and go without all of the rigmarole that happens in commercial aviation. So that’s probably attractive to traffickers if they can afford it.

Michael Camal Yeah, that’s right. And there might only be a couple staff located at those airports. And thankfully we’ve had a significant amount of support from the industry. The National Air Transportation Association, several other companies that run fixed base operators, they’re getting involved. And we just recently did a big webinar to raise awareness. So the support is definitely increasing.

Tom Temin And what kind of feedback have you gotten? Have they found people? Do you have a way of measuring how many perhaps trafficking situations have been stopped as a result of Blue Lightening?

Michael Camal We’ve gotten some great feedback from partners. The partners are taking the training, they’re seeing the indicators, and they’re reporting it in to homeland security. And then we’re investigating and looking into it. The data is very limited. When the calls come in for Homeland Security or for the national hotline, the primary goal is to make sure that victim gets the support. It’s not necessarily to ask whether travel was involved. However, the data is alarming. Just last year alone, there were over 15,000 human trafficking cases from the hotline. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 27 million victims globally. And when you talk with the survivors, you hear other stories about how they traveled through all these different airports. And at that time no one knew what it was or how to report it. But I think we’re in a better position now. And as this campaign continues, we’re going to be able to stop those situations and prevent them from even occurring in the first place.

Tom Temin And my other question, with respect to the airlines and the airports, concerns the transportation security officers themselves. They’ve got a lot to look at. Their very highly occupied. Are they part of the Homeland Security apparatus that can spot this kind of thing?

Michael Camal Absolutely. So Transportation Security Administration, they are a part of Homeland Security. And our campaign, the blue campaign, we actually train those staff as well, and also the entire DHS, Homeland Security enterprise. What I’d like to highlight is that the Blue Campaign and Blue Lightening Initiative is now a part of what’s called the DHS Center for Countering Human Trafficking, which is the first DHS center to counter solely human trafficking. And it’s comprised of all the Homeland Security components. So you just name one that’s TSA, everyone knows that they go to the airport. When they get interviewed before leaving a country or entering a country, that’s Customs and Border Protection. They’re a part of it. And it’s all led by Homeland Security Investigations or HSI. And those are the folks that are out there investigating trafficking and also making sure the victims are connected to resources.

Tom Temin By the way, is the Clear program part of this? Because I think that would be an attractive way for traffickers to kind of hustle someone through onto a plane, because it’s an expedited type of thing and it’s pretty cheap to sign up for.

Michael Camal So Clear is one of our Blue Lightening Initiative partners. They signed on a little over a year ago and they’ve been training their staff.

Tom Temin And how did you come to this? You’re fairly young guy for getting a Sammies nomination and what’s your background?

Michael Camal So I’m just a guy from New Jersey. I went to school in Rhode Island. I did a federal internship through Homeland Security that ended up leading to this anti-human trafficking job five years ago. And I didn’t think I would be here for the amount of time I was. But once you start working on the anti-human trafficking mission, it’s very, very hard to stop. It’s such an impactful mission. And I really love what I do.

Tom Temin Are you a law enforcement person? I mean, what’s your domain? Just a program manager. I mean, not just that, but you know what I mean, you’re not law enforcement officially.

Michael Camal That’s right. Yeah. So I’m not a law enforcement officer. What I do is raise awareness. My sole job is to raise awareness. Our law enforcement HSI agents are out there. They’re investigating the crime. We support them by raising awareness, by setting up partnerships with airlines, with airports, with schools, not just aviation, but also other entities as well. We’re raising awareness. I go out there, I do presentations, I speak on panels. Some companies, when you first start to talk about human trafficking, they get a little antsy. They think, this is not a crime that I really want to be associated with my brand. So we kind of change that narrative to say, we want you to be a part of this mission because the crime is happening whether we like it or not. So we want to be a part of the solution. And part of my job is to establish those relationships and just make sure everyone is aware about what this is, because when we’re more aware, we can better address it.

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