The refugee crisis, and the networks of human smuggling it supports, often feel a world away.
But American flight attendant Donna Hubbard reminded the audience at the Women in the World Summit on Friday that modern slavery was also happening close to home. Last year, Hubbard grabbed headlines when she saved a young boy from human trafficking on a flight from Honduras to Miami. A victim of the trade herself, Hubbard knew what to look for.
As a young mother, Hubbard made money doing sex work. She lived next door to a pimp, who, as she tells it, “sold” her to a gang. They forced her to perform sexual favors, and beat her if she didn’t comply. In one instance, she was so badly hurt that she was sent to the emergency room. When asked by hospital staff if she wanted to press charges, she refused out of fear. During that period, Hubbard used drugs heavily and spent time in and and out of jail. “Desperate people do desperate things,” she said.
Hubbard never talked about her sex work, particularly around her children. “I didn’t want them to know the truth,” she said. “The less they knew, the safer they were.” Yet even while suffering her shame in silence, Hubbard began to turn her life around, finding steady work as a flight attendant. Part of the job involved learning how to spot victims of human trafficking. It can be tricky, Hubbard admits: “People don’t want to get involved and they don’t want to be wrong. Yet there are warning signs — if one only stops to read them.”
During one flight, she noticed a nervous couple looking after a drowsy boy. He was only about five-years-old and unresponsive; Hubbard’s alarm bells went off instantly. After consulting with a colleague, she decided to speak with the adults — each of whom gave a different name and age for the boy. Hubbard quietly reported it to her superiors on the ground. When the plane landed, the boy was rescued.
As a flight attendant, Hubbard has also worked with Airline Ambassadors International, a nonprofit organization that offers services to vulnerable children, but her outreach goes beyond trafficking. She founded, Woman At The Well Transition Center,“ a residential program for formerly incarcerated women and their families. Hubbard is proud of her work, but acknowledges that recovery, whether from the trauma of incarceration or trafficking, only begins with a rescue.
“The physical chains you can change with an event,” she said. “The psychological chains are a process.”
Co-panelist Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who was the inaugural U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues under President Obama, said that Hubbard’s story was unfortunately not unique. “It is more lucrative to get into the business of human trafficking. You exhaust drugs but you don’t exhaust women,” Verveer said.
“These criminals really prey on vulnerable people who are desperate economically. Women tend to be much more marginalized and viewed as second-class, in many ways,” she said. “What was starting is this modern day slavery—and it is slavery—that called for laws. We, in the United States, by 2000, passed a very strong law that was responsive to this…The preying is happening on the internet and it’s happening with great speed and great accessibility to women.”
Additional reporting by Pieter Colpaert.