A Form of Trafficking You May Never Have Heard Of

By Mitzi Perdue

Any form of human smuggling is likely to be a cross between harrowing and horrifying. Here’s one you may not know about, and it certainly fits into the category of harrowing and horrifying.

It’s the crime of smuggling human beings in the sealed containers you see stacked on ocean-going container ships. This particular form of human trafficking has its own unique horrors.

By the way, there is some good news about dealing with this particular crime, and we’ll get to it later on. But first, how does this form of human trafficking work?

Smuggling Human Beings in Containers on Container Ships

According to Dr. Sabatino Nacson, from TeknoScan in Canada, “Too often people give their last dime to smugglers who’ve promised them a better life in a new country.”

However, once the individuals end up in an 8’ by 20’ or 40’ foot container, and the door is sealed shut the dream starts becoming a nightmare. The only ventilation is nine air holes at each end of the container. These air holes are each between 1/4” and ½” diameter.

There’s no lighting because there’s no electricity. There’s also no sanitation. The best they can do with their bodily wastes is store these in plastic bags.

Temperatures in the container can rise to 50oC (122oF) or even 60oC (140oF). With poor ventilation and no air-conditioning, the heat becomes life-threatening.

That’s not the end of their miseries. The vessels are ocean-going, and the ship has a good chance of encountering a storm.

What Happens When There’s a Storm at Sea?

Imagine being inside a hot, dark, claustrophobia-inducing container. Your ship sailed into a storm and although you don’t know it, the waves are reaching 40 or even 60 feet.

You and the people you are with are all seasick, and the high seas fling you all first against one of the steel sides of your container, and then against the other. The high seas are also causing the plastic waste bags to slam back and forth against the container’s sides.

You’re in the dark, and the filth is unimaginable. The steel floor is slick, and you don’t want to think about where that sickness is coming from. But really, you know. Everyone is retching

Among the torments of this experience: you have no way of knowing how long the storm will last. Hour after hour, the ship heaves and bucks, bruising you as it relentlessly slams you and everyone else back and forth against those horrible steel walls.

Risk of Death

As Dr. Nacson says, “When a trip lasts more than 10 days, it’s very, very risky. After 10 days, it’s only the young and strong who may be able to survive.”

Some of the people who’ve traveled with you do die. If the stench was bad before, it’s unimaginably worse now as their bodies rapidly decompose in the high heat.

Eventually, your ship makes land. You’re finally in America! Or Saudi Arabia or Britain. Wherever your destination, you’ve made it and you’re ready to start a new and better life.

Except that’s not what happens. You may face a danger you never considered. Customs officials may X-ray the container you’re in, looking for contraband.

Since they are unaware that there are human beings inside, they may use powerful X-rays that could mean radiation burns and a shortened life.

Is Your Ordeal Now Over?

Your container is next winched off the ship and onto a waiting truck. Finally, your ordeal is over.

Except it isn’t. Human traffickers await you. You were set up for this even before you left your country, and the person who did the setup was the same smuggler who took all your money.

The fact is, you’re the traffickers’ perfect prey: you don’t speak the language; you have no papers; and you’re sick, hungry, scared, demoralized and in no condition to resist.

Your trafficker acts with impunity because he knows that no one knows to look for you. The trafficker will use you for slave labor, and if you get out of line, you’ll be beaten and or starved.

This is the terrible, horror-inducing situation of people trafficked through container ships.

A Ray of Technological Hope

Dr. Nacson, CTO of TeknoScan has developed a sensing device that can detect if human beings are present in a container. It works by detecting the pyruvic acid and lactic acid that all humans emit as a part of the body’s muscles’ metabolism.

The sensor probes the air coming out of the air vents or through the door gasket. Customs officials can use it to discover in minutes if people are in the container. Dr. Nacson’s system is also able to detect other contrabands like drugs and explosives.

The number of cases of smuggled people in marine containers has not been fully documented and it is very likely to be in the thousands. Information sharing is usually restricted to Customs and border security agencies.

When customs authorities do find them, the smuggled individuals will probably be able to evade the modern-day slavery that the human traffickers had in store for them.

What You Can Do

If the dangers of human trafficking moves you, there is a way to make a difference. Global Anti-Trafficking Auction volunteer Don Winsor is working to create a mobile museum to educate people about container ship trafficking.

His plan is to have actual ship’s containers with one side cut out so it resembles a theater stage. Then, the plan is to have theater set designers show what the space looks like before an ocean trip begins. It will show the amount of food and water needed, the number of people that fit in the area, and much more.

If you’re a set-designer or containership owner or anyone else who can help with this project, email him at donwinsor@me.com. If you’d like more information about Dr. Sabatino Nacson’s work, write to him at snacson@teknoscan.com.

About The Author

Mitzi Perdue is a businesswoman, author, and Founder of Win This Fight, Stop Human Trafficking Now. She holds a B.A. degree with honors from Harvard University and a Master's from George Washington University. She's a past president of the 40,000 member American Agri-Women, and she was a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Conference on Women in Nairobi. She was also a Commissioner for the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. Her Scripps Howard column, The Environment and You, was for years the most widely syndicated environmental column in the U.S.

She is the founder and president of “Win This Fight! Stop Human Trafficking Now,” an organization that raises funds and awareness for other anti-trafficking initiatives.