Human trafficking may seem like a distant problem—something that only happens abroad or in the movies—but traffickers have checked into hotels across the nation. As the world’s second largest criminal industry, human trafficking exploits 100,000 to 300,000 American children (ages 12 and up) every year. In New York City alone, 44 percent of the child victims were sexually exploited in hotels.
The American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute (AH&LEI) and ECPAT USA, an organization dedicated to ending child sexual exploitation, have joined forces to educate hotel owners and employees on this issue. “Traffickers are now using technology. They’re selling children online—less and less on the street—and they might be living in a hotel setting, or they’ll bring the victim to a hotel for the exploitation,” says Michelle Guelbart, ECPAT USA director of private sector engagements.
Traffickers often use hotels to run their business because they feel it’s an anonymous, risk-free setting in which law enforcement cannot track them. By keeping an eye out for signs of trafficking, employees can help end the anonymity of the crime. Such signs include a guest who pays in cash one day at a time, a guest who escorts various men into a room and waits by the door until the visitors leave, or a child guest who dresses inappropriately for the weather and uses sexual language.
While it’s important to speak up if suspicious behaviors arise, Guelbart stresses the importance of carefully assessing and reporting the situation. Trafficking endangers not only the victim in question but everyone under the hotel’s roof. “Trafficking is often connected with other criminal activity, including drugs or violent assault, and this can jeopardize the safety of hotel guests and employees,” Guelbart says. “You should never, ever directly get involved in a potential sex trafficking situation.”
ECPAT USA recommends employees who suspect child human trafficking to contact the manager on duty. From there, the manager can choose to alert the proper authorities. In the long term, hoteliers can work toward implementing policies against commercial child exploitation, make contacts with local victims’ services, and ensure employees are well trained on detection and response.