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Airport ministry helps stop trafficking

05 September 2014

Chaplains to the civil-aviation industry met in Amsterdam last month. Gavin Drake reports


Behind the glass: actors playing tourists recreate a prostitute's working conditions at the Red Light Secrets museum in Amsterdam

Behind the glass: actors playing tourists recreate a prostitute's working conditions at the Red Light Secrets museum in Amsterdam

THE red-light district of De Wallen, Amsterdam, is often portrayed as a glamorous area. Tourists from around the world flock to the narrow streets to watch prostitutes exhibit themselves in windows, as they seek to entice punters to come in an hand over their money.

But it is the hidden cost that worries the police and civic leaders in the Netherlands. The country is one of the world's hot spots for trafficked women; and the authorities are now fighting back. In the past decade, many brothels have been closed. And it is airports that are the front line when it comes to spotting the traffickers in action.

The UN says that many women - usually teenaged girls - are trafficked through the use of so-called "lover boys", men who persuade young women to leave their homes on the promise of a new life, only for them to find themselves enslaved in a foreign country.

Those who are being trafficked are, however, often unaware of their victim status, even when presented with the evidence. The UK Border Force staff at one airport recently became suspicious about a young couple who had arrived at the immigration desk. They looked very much in love, and even had matching tattoos on the backs of their hands.

They were questioned separately, and background checks were carried out. The address given as their UK base turned out to be a known brothel. Both the man and his mother had convictions for living off immoral earnings and people-trafficking.

It was clear to officials that the young woman was only the latest "girlfriend" of the man, and was being brought into the UK legitimately before being taken to the brothel, where she would be forced to work as a sex slave. The girl refused to accept the evidence, however. She was in love with the man, and was convinced that he loved her. The airport chaplaincy team were brought in, and the girl was returned to her home country.

Chaplains throughout the UK are playing an important part in helping to educate airport staff about the signs of trafficking. At Manchester Airport, all staff are trained to look out for the warning signs and to take action.

The Revd George Lane, Anglican chaplain at the airport, said that recently a foreign 17-year-old who had missed her flight was told that she would have to wait two days before she could return home. She was approached by two men, who offered her a place to stay.

"The parking marshal saw this, and approached the group. He asked if everything was all right, and the men went away," Mr Lane said. The parking marshal's uniform was similar to a police one, he added. The girl agreed to wait in the airport, and the marshal, a cleaner, and another member of staff took her under their wing, regularly checking that she was all right.

Dr Francis Mutach Kapend, a chaplain from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said that victims of trafficking "are silent, unable to speak about what is happening to them for fear of what is happening to their families".

Writing in the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains' conference programme, he said: "These people frequently move through airports or live on the fringes of the airport. The chaplains are able to counsel them, and show them where to get help. The Churches are involved in this fight against the new forms of slavery." The chaplains at the conference were given an update, behind closed doors, from the Dutch Border Protection Team on the methods being used to capture traffickers. They also attended a dinner cooked by former victims of trafficking who had been rescued by Not For Sale, an NGO that provides short-term housing and social services to survivors of trafficking.

Earlier this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury joined the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Egypt to form the Global Freedom Network (News, 21 March), which seeks to combat trafficking, to "eradicate an injustice affecting up to 29 million people".

THE value of airport chaplains isn't always appreciated. In the United States, for example, although some airports welcome the work that chaplains do, others prohibit any such work because of their interpretation of the US Constitution's separation of Church and State.

In the UK, however, the work of chaplains is recognised not only by the airports, but also by the Government. The chaplaincy team at Manchester Airport is not alone in receiving funds from the Foreign Office for work with people who are returning to the UK after consular assistance, or having spent time in overseas prisons.

The Revd George Lane, Anglican Chaplain at Manchester Airport, and vice-president of the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, said that a police officer working at the airport recently questioned why airport chaplains were involved in this work.

"The answer is simple," he said. "It is true that there is no start to our statutory responsibilities, but that also works both ways: it means that there is also no end to our responsibilities. If things are dealt with just as a police matter, then the support ends when the police interest ends."

He said that, recently, three police forces, Cambridgeshire, Nottinghamshire, and Greater Manchester, and the three respective social-services departments, had each tried to pass responsibility to one another for dealing with an issue, and only the chaplaincy team were interested in assisting. "It wasn't a police matter until it was a police matter, and then it was only a police matter," he said.

Most of the pastoral issues dealt with by the chaplains are more mundane. The Revd Wina Hordijk, a Protestant chaplain at Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam, said that a Jewish passenger was desperate to speak with a rabbi. They put him in contact with a rabbi from the city, and it emerged that he wanted help with finding kosher food at the airport. "I'm not a caterer," the rabbi said, later.

The Revd Nico Sarot, an Old Catholic/Anglican Chaplain at Schiphol, said that an airport worker who frequently used the chaplaincy centre brought a distressed Muslim passenger for help. She had twice missed her flight, and it would be days before she would be able to return home, as it was the holiday season. The airline would not offer assistance because it was deemed to be her own fault.

"I was able to telephone somebody higher up in the airline than the passenger could, and he made arrangements for her to be able to fly home," he said.

The most common part of an airport chaplain's work is helping the bereaved. At Schiphol, the chaplaincy team have a well-worked out plan for dealing with the return of tourists who have been bereaved while on holiday. They take the waiting family to a private area near the arrival gate, so that reunions can take place quickly and away from the gaze of onlookers.

Arrangements are made to collect the passengers' luggage and for them to be fast-tracked through immigration and customs. It is surprisingly common: in Schiphol it happens more than 70 times a year.

"It doesn't matter what their religion is," Ms Hordijk said. "We aren't there to convert them: we're there to help them. And that is what we do."


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