How many experts does it take to prevent a child from being trafficked out of Europe?
A couple of weeks ago I woke up at 5am to get on my flight back to Thailand from a wonderful week of holiday in Greece. As I was settling into my long-haul Qatar Airlines flight, one of the flight attendants came and asked if I minded having an unaccompanied minor sit next to my friend and I - the 14 year old Bangladeshi girl, Amira*, was traveling alone and according to their airline policy she needed to be sat next to women and not men. We of course agreed and Amira came to sit in between us. Amira was wearing make-up, and was dressed smartly making her look older than her 14 years. She didn’t have much English but told us her name and said she was on her way to Bangladesh to sit a school exam. She said her father was working in Athens and her parents live in Athens. It struck me that despite her sophisticated appearance she still seemed happy with the children’s colouring set she was given by the flight attendant as a child passenger.
When we had been flying for a couple of hours, a man who looked to be in his 50s came and spoke to Amira over the top of our seats, giving her some kind of instructions in a language they shared. This then happened again with a different man a few minutes later. Something did not add up here as Amira was supposed to be traveling alone, so I went to speak to the head flight attendant. The head flight attendant told me that she was alone and that actually there was a concern that the proper paperwork wasn’t in place. The airline policy was that she was supposed to have signed papers from her parents authorising her to travel alone, but for some reason this had not been done. This was starting to have all the ingredients of a child trafficking case and I started to get chills down my spine.
I explained to the flight attendant that I work in this area and that this was a child protection concern - they needed to call law enforcement to meet our plane in Doha. The flight attendant asked us to identify the men who had come up and spoken to Amira during the flight so they could keep them back when we landed. We were only able to identify one of the men and give his seat number to the flight attendant.
When we landed we were asked to stay behind while the other passengers left the plane. What followed was like a text book list of all the things not to do when interviewing potential child victims of a crime. Amira was asked to wait right next to the man who had been speaking to her, and the flight attendants were questioning her while the man interrupted in his own language, saying something to Amira. I asked for Amira to be separated from the man and for him to be asked to be quiet. One of the flight attendants spoke Bengali and I asked him to come and translate for me while I spoke to Amira alone. I told her I thought she may be in a bad situation and that I could help her if she was, but that she needed to speak. Amira didn’t really get a chance to respond as the flight attendants decided it was time to get off the plane and we went into the airport where a more senior flight attendant came to meet us, and also started to question Amira and the man. He proceeded to explain to Katy and I that he was Indian, and that we didn’t understand that in South Asian culture it is normal for someone to take care of other people from their own country, and as we had no evidence that the man was doing anything wrong, we could offend him by accusing him of something. He said that its not as if Amira was a small child, and as she was saying she was OK, there was not a problem. I was stunned that he could not feel Amira’s palpable vulnerability under the façade of her grown up clothes. I did my best to stay calm and diplomatic, although I did not appreciate the mansplaining that was going on by the growing team of male officials who had come to resolve the situation and who were keen to tell me that there was nothing to worry about as they knew best.
Eventually law enforcement came from Doha and took the man to be interviewed. The law enforcement officer also asked Amira for the contact details of her parents in Athens. Amira said that she didn’t have a phone number or an address for her parents, who she had been living with in Athens, which seemed strange. I asked who would be meeting her when she arrived in Dhaka. Amira said it was an aunty who would then take her to Cox’s Bazaar where she was heading. At first Amira claimed she didn’t have a number for her aunty, but when pressed she came up with a phone number, and the flight attendant who spoke Bengali called her and asked for her name and for her to send some ID. The ‘aunty’ immediately sent a photo of her ID which turned out to be that of a Bangladeshi police officer. All of the officials thought that this was conclusive proof that Amira would be safe when she got to Bangladesh in the hands of a law enforcement official. It seemed fruitless to bring up the fact that law enforcement officials are commonly involved in child trafficking cases themselves, while addressing another law enforcement official, so I swallowed my concerns, adding to the ever sinking feeling in my gut.
In the meantime the Qatari law enforcement officer had been interviewing the man from the plane, and he came back and said that he hadn’t found any evidence of anything wrong. He said that in his experience of trafficking cases the perpetrators are usually carrying multiple passports on them, and this man didn’t have any such documents, so he was likely not a trafficker. He said all he could do was to liaise with law enforcement in Bangladesh and tell them to make sure that Amira was met safely in Dhaka. It was hard to argue that this official was technically wrong. It would be hard to send Amira back to Athens with no contact details for her parents, especially as she is not Greek. By liaising with his counterparts in Bangladesh he was certainly doing his duty. Maybe Amira is fine. We will never know.
But the fact is that a 14 year old girl left Greece, a European Union country, alone with no legal authority from or contact details for her parents, to travel to Bangladesh. She is in a high risk group for child trafficking or forced marriage. She was sat on the plane next to me, a lawyer currently working as an expert consultant in child protection for the UN. My friend seated on her other side is a successful social entrepreneur who also has many years experience working professionally with abused youth. There were five flight attendants and three law enforcement officials who met with us in Doha. Hence I come back to the title of this piece: how many experts does it take to prevent a child from being trafficked out of Europe?
*Not her real name.