Bay Area airport workers learn how to identify human trafficking victims

Workers at Oakland International Airport on Tuesday began training on how to spot victims of human trafficking as part of a regional effort to stamp out what's become the world's fastest-growing criminal enterprise.

Thousands of victims of sex and labor trafficking are shepherded through airports, but they are very rarely rescued there, said Betty Ann Boeving, executive director of the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition. Officials are sharing this message with airport workers across the board: If you see something, say something.

"The truth is that sex trafficking and human trafficking is big business right here in this country, right here in this region, and it's high time that we all take notice of it and get serious about eradicating it," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, who along with Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, is leading an ongoing effort to combat sex trafficking in the Bay Area.

Training airport workers to recognize the signs that a man, woman or child is a victim will save individuals from such modern-day slavery and deter traffickers who masquerade as sports coaches, employers and family members, officials say. Oakland is the last of the Bay Area's major airports to have workers trained, after San Francisco and San Jose international airports.

"Today is a great day because ... we have now circled the Bay in terms of training on sex trafficking, and make sure you appreciate that airports are magnets for sex trafficking," Speier said. "Conventions, conferences are all ripe for increasing the actual activity that goes on."

Retraining at Bay Area airports is planned before the 2016 Super Bowl at the San Francisco 49ers' Levi's Stadium as sex trafficking in any region is at its highest during major sports events, Boeving said.

Oakland, in particular, is known for having a sex trade problem that is being aggressively tackled by O'Malley and the Oakland Police Department. Criminal street gangs are increasingly using sex trafficking as a moneymaking enterprise because, unlike drugs, they can sell the same boy or girl over and over again, O'Malley said. The majority of sex trafficking victims are minors.

In the last five years, the Alameda County District Attorney's Office prosecuted nearly 400 sex trafficking cases, accounting for almost 50 percent of such prosecutions in the entire state, O'Malley said.

"(Airports are) the No. 1 place we should try to intercept (victims) because they are outside of the hands of the trafficker often," Boeving said. "These girls are sometimes put on a plane from Chicago to arrive in San Francisco, and so we are hoping that in transit is a place where someone could actually come to their rescue."

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