At a transit center in Washington, a customer service representative helped a young woman get a ride to a safe place after she had been brutally beaten, raped, and robbed, allegedly as punishment for refusing to be prostituted. On an intercity bus in Ohio, the driver alerted law enforcement after a young woman told him that she was being held against her will and forced into prostitution by a male passenger on the same bus. At a bus station in Texas, employees helped a young man call the National Human Trafficking Hotline after he told them he’d been abandoned by the head of a traveling construction crew who had confiscated his identification documents, stole his belongings, refused to tell him where he was, and denied him pay. At a transit center in California, security guards reported suspicions about a man they’d observed making unwelcomed advances on young women to their local human trafficking task force, which launched an investigation that culminated in the arrest of the man at a motel where he and an accomplice were holding a young woman against her will.
Human trafficking — or modern-day slavery — is the exploitation of human beings through force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of commercial sex or forced labor. There are an estimated 40 million victims of human trafficking worldwide including thousands of girls, boys, women, and men in the U.S.
In example after example, throughout the U.S., members of the bus industry are making a difference in the lives of victims of human trafficking and helping law enforcement investigate and prosecute traffickers. The heroism displayed by these bus drivers and station employees is rarely the type that makes for splashy headlines, but rather the kind that comes from being observant, showing care for those in need, being willing to get involved, and understanding what to look for and how to report it effectively.
Traffickers prey upon vulnerabilities and, in many ways, it’s because of the critical service that buses provide vulnerable populations along America’s roadways and in American communities that make the bus industry so important in this fight. Traffickers, looking for disaffected youth or people who may be down on their luck, go to bus stops and bus stations in search of prospective victims. As a low cost, relatively anonymous form of transportation, traffickers use buses in transporting their victims, either following an initial online recruitment — when they are using a bus to bring their victims to them — or using a bus during the exploitation phase to take their victims to and from places where they will be sold. In a study released by Polaris, who runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 42% of survivors stated that they or their traffickers utilized local or long distance buses in the facilitation of their exploitation.
Buses can also be a lifeline for victims of human trafficking. As traffickers often control their victims’ identification documents, money, communication, and access to information, victims have few avenues to exit their situation. Consequently, when victims are able to get out, a transit center or bus station may be the first place they’ll go to find safety or escape. In the Polaris study, 26% of survivors said that public or mass transportation played a role in at least one of their exit attempts.
Making a Difference
Recognizing these realities, Busing on the Lookout (BOTL), a program of the non-profit organization Truckers Against Trafficking, partners with private bus companies, public transit providers, state agencies, municipalities, school districts, and others to educate and equip members of the bus industry to combat human trafficking as part of their everyday jobs. BOTL operates on the belief that by empowering frontline bus industry employees with information about human trafficking, bus drivers, terminal workers, maintenance staff, ticket counter personnel, security guards, janitorial staff, etc., can play an integral role in helping to recover victims and bring traffickers to justice.
There are several steps that bus industry leaders, state agencies and the federal government can take to support this important work. BOTL recommends the following:
- Train all employees on human trafficking with BOTL’s industry-specific resources that can be accessed for free at https://truckersagainsttrafficking.org/bus-training/.
- Establish an internal reporting policy for when trafficking is suspected.
- Launch a victim-centered awareness campaign to reach victims with lifesaving information.
- Train all department of transportation employees and motor vehicle enforcement and/or law enforcement officers on human trafficking.
- Share information about BOTL’s free training resources with bus companies, transit agencies and school districts.
- Incorporate BOTL’s training into curriculum used for school bus driver certification or Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) schools.
- The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) should expand upon its grant programs that provide federal funding to state and local transportation-focused anti-trafficking initiatives, including those for public transportation providers to conduct training and public awareness.
- Congress should appropriate federal funding to the USDOT for direct training and grant programs that support and facilitate the implementation of transportation-focused anti-trafficking initiatives.
- Congress should increase funding for the National Human Trafficking Hotline to increase its capacity to respond timely and effectively to the calls they receive 24/7 from throughout the U.S.
For more information on BOTL and its free anti-trafficking training resources for the bus industry, please visit https://truckersagainsttrafficking.or/bus-training/ or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Annie Sovcik is Director of Busing on the Lookout and Truckers Against Trafficking (this story originally ran in January 2021)