Interview with Anita du Plessis from Freedom Ports Alliance

Today we welcome Anita du Plessis. Anita will speak to us about the important role you play in forwarding information that you witness in your community in order to bring justice for the victims and prosecution against the traffickers.


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Interviewee: Anita du Plessis (Freedom Ports Alliance)

Interviewer: Pierre Haupt

List of Acronyms: Pierre Haupt = PH:; Anita du Plessis = AP


PH: Hi, good day my name is Pierre Haupt and I represent Free To Fly. And today we are privileged and honored to have with us Anita du Plessis from Freedom Ports Alliance. Anita can you just briefly introduce yourself and kind of explain to us about what Freedom Ports Alliance is all about.


AP: Thank you so much Pierre for the opportunity. I really appreciate that. Freedom Ports Alliance is an organization who fights human trafficking, but we do it in a different way. We equip ports services, everyone working in an airport from law enforcement, immigration, police, border control, customs as well as airline staff as well as the service providers, how to identify human trafficking and how to respond to it effectively and in a trauma informed manner.


PH: Wow, that’s amazing to know that we have an organization out there with the expertise and the skills to actually teach or educate people about trafficking and how to see  what you guys see. Tell me a little bit more about yourself and how you have been involved in anti trafficking.


AP: So my journey with anti trafficking work started in 2012, when an advocate invited me to come and see the plight of victims of sex trafficking in a neighbouring country. At that stage, we were living in Indonesia and that was when I literally stumbled into my purpose and a thing that I will never ever get tired of. Because out on the streets, the first time I asked the questions: “How did you get here? And how do we get you to safety?” Those are still the two questions that drive me today. Because here’s the fact for someone to be trafficked, someone already exploited their desperation for an opportunity.


PH: For sure


AP: I worked in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, that triangle from 2012 and then returned to South Africa in 2015 and from there we have been working together as a team, until we started Freedom Ports Alliance, due to our work in Cape Town Airport.


PH: Wow. That’s an amazing journey. Because not only do you have the expertise of working locally, in your country, you’re recognizing what this country on its own needs, but you also got experience of other countries and what trafficking looks like from a different culture.


AP: Yes, it is a privilege and you know, what makes it easier when you work abroad or when you work in an airport is from our own experience, we know we are very controlled and we are guarded when we do our check ins. But the moment we’ve gone through security checks and through immigration checks, we relax. And the same goes for trafficking victims and traffickers


PH: For sure


AP: So it’s about tapping from your own experience and that insecurity that you feel when you’re in a queue or when you are at a security checkpoint. And that is all that you use – your own experience.


PH: Well, from what I hear and what I know about you, it seems just appropriate that I can call you some kind of a specialist in data coalition and mapping and that is the topic that we will cover with you today. So let’s get right into it. So what is in your opinion, data collation and mapping?


AP: Data is information and we take information, what we read, what we see and observe, what we hear. And so actually, our brains already put all that information that we are taking in one pot, and that is what we call data collation. We take all the little bits of information and we put it together. And the data tells a story. And what we then do as we process the data, and as we analyse it, it starts telling its own story and starts painting a picture and that is what mapping is. You take all the data, you extract the valuable things, aspects from the data that you’ve collated. And you say, okay – this is  important, this is important, this is important. And then you go to a map and say, this is the location where it happened. This is the business or the person who was there. This is the street and you start adding text boxes to that location. And you just fill in the information that you have extracted. And in that way your map starts telling you the story. The bigger picture of what is behind that data. Its as simple as that.


PH: Awesome. Other thing is this, why is data collation and mapping important would you say?


AP: You know, let’s go back to experiences that I have had overseas in working with victims directly on the street and working with pimps and bosses as well. We started tracking the girls and their routes by handing out little gifts every week. Whether it was something that you put on a pen, whether it was earrings,  a bangle or  it was bling for your phone. Whatever, and we kept a very clear record of that. Okay. And because we knew where we handed those gifts out, when you see the girls again, you see there is the earrings, there is the bangles. Then you can go back and say: “Hey, she was here – that time on that time and that time.” And that is how we actually figured out that even though police ban a victim of trafficking from a country for three years, for instance, immigration in their own country just helps them get new fake passports. So we saw multiple girls coming back to be trafficked abroad four to eight times a year. And that is part of gathering that data. Because now you can go to her profile on the map. And you go to that street profile and that pimp’s profile and now you start adding all these extra bits of data.


PH: Okay, wow, what an extraordinary way of figuring things out. Of having no resources at that time and using the bangles and things but now in today’s time we got a lot more tech so we can do a little bit more accurate work on the stuff. What is data collation and mapping to Human Trafficking?


AP: We’ll if we talk about Human Trafficking we don’t only want know who the victims and the perpetrators are. We want to be able to present the facts to officials. Unless we present the real facts to police, immigration or law enforcement agencies, they have nothing to investigate; they have nothing to build the case on. So we want to collate the data. We want to be able to verify and say: “Yes we have the proof that this is true. We have confirmed this, these are facts,” and then we give it to the police so that they can build a case. Otherwise, there will never ever be any investigation.


PH: So if I look at my kind of exposure, that I didn’t know I actually had, just listening to you now, painting a picture and also trying to paint a picture to the viewers out there who also just you know, learning from you now what data collation is mapping. So we see these FBI movies sometimes and we see our profiles are built of people and, that kind of showed me of how the FBI tracks people. Would you say that that is something that needs to be done with regard to registration of paedophiles? Because like you said, if we don’t have profiles of people that we pick up in the mapping and the data collation, then we actually doing it kind of for nothing. So, would you say that forwarding the information like this to law enforcement agencies would help them to build profiles and in turn help prosecution of these people?


AP: Yes, definitely. And we must take into account that every country has its own. We have the POPI Act in South Africa, but every country has their own acts and protection laws regarding people’s identification, and their addresses and things like that. So, we need to remember that when we do profiles and collate data. But here’s why it is so important.: Police can’t be everywhere. They can’t be. We collate the data, because we actually step out of our comfort zone. We go into the areas of exploitation. We go to the places where the pubs are and where the brothels are or things like that. But moreover, we all shop at places in our areas, where we have foreigners running the shops. Are they documented or undocumented? Have they overstayed? We don’t know, but by building a trust relationship with them and building an authentic friendship with them. You start chatting with them and you get the information. I mean that’s what we do with the perpetrators, with the pimps and with the bosses. We don’t like them and we don’t like what they do but,t unless we build a friendship with them, we can’t get to the victims. And , through that friendship, then they will start telling us things and that is why after nearly two years one pimp told me the only reason, he is a pimp, is because his mother started sexually exploiting him at the age of five. You know, and that was an eye opener, because then I saw him through different eyes. So when we talk about data collation and mapping and profile building, it is very crucial because when you see a victim and hear what they tell you and the name that they use and the date of birth that they use, it is based on the passport that they hold.


PH: For sure


AP: But what if that person has had multiple passports? Then you need to know and you need to figure it out. You can only do that by gaining their trust and keep that friendship going. Because you really care. And because you want to help them. You can’t just rush and say:Okay, this is what I see. This is it.”


PH: For sure, really relevant. There is still that one thing that I would like to touch on. You mentioned the POPI Act. Could you, do you,  understand that very well? Could you just briefly give us an idea of what the Act is about so that you know if you’ve got people watching out there who will want to get involved in kind of like you explaining to us the movement of information and data so that people like you with your experience can put it together. What about the POPI Act? What should people know out there and with regard to sending and usage of information or details that are not their own?


AP: It’s a very good question and a very relevant one. Because we are not allowed to just collate people’s data, to keep copies of their identity documents, their addresses, their cell phone numbers and things like that. That is why people have to be POPI Act vetted. So if we look at our National Human Trafficking Hotline, the resource line that A21 runs, they are vetted by governments to collate data, to analyse it and to present the cases to police, to the Hawks and to the NPA ( National Prosecuting Authority). So it is best to work with them, because then you pass it on to them. If we look at just a simple example, as you would know, for the past four or five years, every few months, there’s a long WhatsApp chat about children being trafficked in containers to China.


PH: For sure.


AP: And how many died? That story pops up every time every year. And we get frustrated, because no one knows the source of it. But people spread it all over as if it’s true. You are not allowed to distribute anything like that. Unless you can vet that this is true.


PH: Well, that’s amazing, very important to know, because sometimes the public tend to think that they are helping in a situation where as that would not be the case, according to the POPI Act. Another question is that you mentioned about building relationships with pimps and building relationships with the ladies. Would you say from your interview, to get an operation of this magnitude going with regard to data collation and mapping with the primary role for any organization, the primary objective of asset of any organization like FPA and others that work in the field would be to build an amazing relationship with government? Because, government being the authority figure in the sense that they could do the rest, they could do the prosecution. Where as we can’t. Would you say that would be a very, very important relationship for us to have with government?


AP: It is crucial that we have those trusted partnerships and that we will develop them with government. Anti trafficking organizations like Free To Fly, Freedom Ports Alliance and any one of the others. We can do excellent work on the ground and have a great impact when we work with the victims. However, we can do nothing about their protection and the arrest of the perpetrators and prosecution, unless we work with law enforcement agencies and with government agencies. And, even though it is time consuming to build and develop those relationships, we need to have relationships with police, with the Hawks, with immigration and with our local DSD our social department. So that when we identify something, we will see this is wrong. We know how to report it. We know who to report it to because we give the information. But they are the ones who need to mobilize the teams to actually take action.


PH: What would you say then, from your experience in the field of anti trafficking, data coalition and mapping, would be one shortcoming that you see with government with regard to when reporting things and how our law enforcement agencies act on specifically?


AP:  The easy answer would be to say: government needs to be trained. But let’s backtrack from that. Human trafficking whether its adult, child, sex trafficking, labor trafficking or organ trafficking doesn’t matter. It is such a complex crime. That it takes a lot of understanding and insight and study to actually understand what it entails. Furthermore, to prove a crime like this, you can’t only say: but this is the Child Protection or this is the law or this is the child the sexual exploitation law, or this is the Trafficking Act. You know for yourself from experience that you need to draw from multiple roles.


PH: For sure.


AP: So we looked at one victim that we interviewed at one stage. Okay, she came in on a tourist visa but from  documentation and her host, we realized that she was a porn actress. Okay. So how can she come in on a tourist visa to act in porn production if porn production and distribution is against the law of our country?


PH: True


AP: That’s the simple way. Here is the challenge with law enforcement in itself. You can go worldwide. The agencies who have the authority over trafficking and authority regarding crimes happening in air space, for instance like in airline’s, none of them have an office at an airport. Even the FBI.


PH: Okay


AP: That makes it very complex. And because people are spread all over and they’re not necessarily there or they don’t know what it is. That is why anti trafficking organizations need to be sure that we have comprehensive training, that our training meets the standard of professional training. And we need to do everything we can to get to the point where we can present training. And here’s the thing: before you can present the training, you need to have those relationships with the government agencies before they allow you to say: “Okay, I want to train you!“


PH: Amazing. On the topic of training, tell me your organization FPA – do you guys offer comprehensive training for individuals, organizations for whoever to get them to a level where we can see a change? For example, in airports and how would this training be presented to say, Cape Town International Airport, if we focused on that?


AP: Yes, we do offer comprehensive training and our comprehensive training is based on what we learned in our work in different countries, lessons learned and identifying gaps. Identifying gaps is not to point fingers at anyone, okay. It is to say: these are weak spots that we can help you cover and overcome. The thing is when we look at the victim of human trafficking. According to International Law, they should be protected, they should have access to safety and  health care which government must provide. They need to have access to justice. Those are all services that government provides and various government role players provide in collaboration with anti trafficking NGOs. Okay. But now, for instance, the victim comes from abroad. And that is one of the big challenges that we are still trying to figure out and find  the best practices to respond to that. So now, a victim comes from abroad. We identify the trends and the indicators and we start the conversation. Now we present the facts to the law enforcement agencies, okay, and they can confirm it.


PH: Definitely


AP: What should happen now is law enforcement should give that person the correct documents in order to stay in this country, to be safe and to access justice. Okay, but that’s not what happens. What happens is law enforcement says this person doesn’t belong in the country, you go back.


PH: In other words, it’s not our problem


AP: It´s not our problem. So now we can’t help that victim anymore because government says: You’re not coming into my country, because once you come in, I don’t know where you are going. Airlines don’t verify passengers properly before they board. We’ve seen it how many times, multiple times. They don’t verify them in the port of transit. Now they arrive here. Airport Immigration says: “Sorry, you’re not coming in.” So we can’t help that victim. But now the airline is fined in the destination port because their counterparts in the hub and in the port of origin didn’t verify that passenger. And you know of the one case that we had. Where only on the second time we intercepted the same victim. Did you hear she actually has four children under the age of seven? How can we send you back to that? And we have lost contact with her.


PH: So on that point, would you say then the training that you say FPA can provide and would bring  airport staff up  would be at a level where they can become a bigger part of forwarding information to an organization like FPA? Who will then deal with the data collation and the mapping and therefore, we would be able to track? Not only where this person is right now at the airport when we are sending them back, but also where we are sending them to? Because I think we want to send them back to where they came from originally.


AP: Exactly.


PH: Which would be a safe place for them instead of just sending them back.


AP: Yes. Our training is based on the fact that we have identified the biggest problem or, prohibits a holistic approach of best serving victims of trafficking, best serving government and bringing perpetrators to justice, is the fact that everyone works in a solo system. Everyone works on their own. And people don’t share information and people don’t share data. So our training aims to empower everyone who works in a port. Whether you work in a restaurant or at a coffee stand or whether you are a cleaner. When you are a law enforcement agent when you work in an airport, you have a permit, and every permit holder must be able to firstly identify human trafficking, know how to respond effectively and mobilize the right people in the airport. So what we are saying is this: a big challenge that government always share is they fear partnerships with NGOs, because of the threat to their security. They are afraid that NGOs will share their information with people in the world all over the world and they don’t have any control over the way the information goes. The other thing that the government departments fear is that anti trafficking organizations will be reporting them to the TIP report.


PH: Okay.


AP: And, we read through the TIP report every year. And, every year are the same departments being named and being recommended that they up their game. That they become more proactive in preventing human trafficking. So what we are saying is:We can train you, but we can also provide you with a team whose sole purpose is to focus on identifying and responding to possible human trafficking. To give you the facts, so that you have something to start on.” We can take all the data that we collect and all the people that we engage with, and we can build statistics. By doing that, we give briefings to immigration, police checking counters, ground handling services. We say these are the trends, this is what we are picking up. These are the movements, these are the routes that we are picking up. We give that information to them and we help them build statistics. So instead of saying: “I don’t want to work with you, because you will report me to the TIP office.” we say: “Let’s help you build your own statistics, do your own awareness drive, so that when the TIP office asks for responses and for information then you as a department can say: Hey, TIP office, this is what we witness.”


PH: For sure.

AP: So in that manner, rather partner with your enemy and keep him close than say: “No we don’t want to work with you because we will get shamed.”


PH: Definitely. Dealing with anti trafficking has brought to my attention as well that partnerships play a big role in this. I got a question for you. How does state sovereignty play a  role in all of this?


AP: Before we go to any border, any form of risk whether it is statelessness, whether it is refugees, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, doesn’t matter what it is; the people, the officials manning the border, they are the final authority.


PH: True.


AP:  They say when someone is allowed to step in or not. Okay. There’s nothing we can do to override them. What we need to do is help them understand there’s a person behind that act. There is a very vulnerable person. Behind that one traveling on a fake passport trying to get out of South Africa, there is a very vulnerable person who’s trying to get in. Trying to get away from home. If the states decides to send them back, we have no idea if it is safe for them to go back. There was one instance about that 12-year-old boy that we got called out to.


PH: Give us one or two examples. I think maybe we could just get a better picture of what we are talking about.


AP: The airline called us out because a lady, who said she was the mother, brought this 12 year old boy to the airline counters to check in. She said: “Sorry, I can’t stay. He is your responsibility now. I’ve parked on an illegal spot.” She turned around and she left the building. The check – in staff member immediately sensed something was wrong. And she saw that this child had an emergency identity document. This was a Nigerian boy. And according to the tickets, he was on his way via Windhoek, via Lagos to meet his so called biological father in London. And that’s what his ticket said. So she raised the point to her senior who called on immigration. Immigration said, this boy doesn’t belong here. This is a fake document, the emergency document. But he doesn’t belong here. He’s a foreigner just  let him go and get out of the country. But this airline official, she wouldn’t let go and that is why another immigration official came to call us. And you will remember when we got to the boarding gate the ground crew said to us,: “Sorry. We can’t get the boy off the plane, the plane is ready to push back to leave.How much convincing it took to get the airline to give us copies of his air ticket and of his documentation. And after sifting through  the air ticket and rereading all the data, we picked up that the air ticket was booked at one place. It was paid cash at a different place. It was issued at a third place. Okay. What we also picked up is there were two different dates of birth on the air ticket. How is it possible that no one picked it up? How did anyone even issue the ticket or make that booking with two dates of birth?


PH: For sure.


AP: And ,what we did with that, is we could ask our director to phone ahead to Lagos. You know that the British High Commissioner intervened there, they took the boy to the safe-house and they confirmed that he was a victim of child trafficking. Even though he wasn’t illegal in South Africa. So that is the value of not only working together, but sifting through that data. Don’t just scan through it. Read it. Read it. Read it and make sure you can tick all the boxes.


PH: Very important. Well noted. So in closing, Anita, tell me: if you had viewers out there or people listening to this podcast, how would you encourage them or in what way would you encourage them to try get more involved? Should this topic of human trafficking or anti trafficking kind of stick to them based on some of the information that you’ve given us? How would you say can people get more involved? And how could we be open to the public need for more assistance to an organization like FPA that takes the time out, not only to train, but also takes time out to do the data collection and mapping which is so important?


AP: It’s a very good question. And you know what? Anti Human Trafficking work is not everyone’s work.  Not everyone is called or has the passion to do it full time.


PH: For sure.


AP: But! It is everybody’s responsibility to know what it is. To be able to identify and to do something about it. So the easy answer is to say: whenever you see something, report it to the Hotline 0800 222 777. We give out that number frequently. The other option is to contact Free To Fly and to say: “Hey guys, we want to learn more“. And together  Free To Fly and as Freedom Ports Alliance ,we can partner and equip people to be more informed and how to respond effectively. And may I just give you two short examples of this?


PH: Definitely – go ahead!


AP: In 2017, we took some of our team members on an Asia tour to see what human trafficking looks like. And we took them to visit a few partner organizations, okay. In the one country where we stopped we rented a house because we were a group of 14 people traveling together. Directly opposite of us, there was a lower budget spa. Okay. Three of our people went for a walk that evening late and they saw child trafficking happening in front of their eyes. A man carrying out a girl putting her in the car and leaving with her, okay. Everything was wrong and everything shouted child trafficking. But they didn’t know what to do and they didn’t know who to call and how to respond to it. Until today they have never forgotten that incident. And it bugs them and they feel bad about it until today. If we look at just one last case that I want to mention: we talk about child trafficking and child sexual exploitation. Some time ago, there was an article in the newspaper and it was all over the internet shared by anti trafficking organizations. This man had dual citizenship. Okay. He travelled from country A to exploit boys in country Z. He was arrested there. He was deported back to his own country, country A. They revoked his passport and they put a travel ban on him and they listed him on the sexual offenders database. But because he had dual citizenship, he could move to the other country. Because he still had that passport. Okay, and from that country he travelled back to the country where he exploited boys. To another island to continue with it. And someone picked it up there and they started linking it. It is one thing to say, I’ve done my bit this offender has been caught and he can’t travel, and he’s been listed on the sexual offenders lists. But we need to cover our bases. We need to talk to each other. And that is why at FPA we say: when you work with officials, its one thing to work with officials and airlines in a port because they are port based. But trafficking happens and human trafficking and exploitation happens before that victim or perpetrator arrives in the port and it continues after they left this port.


AP: So we need to build up that pre – port, port base and post port systems and you can only do that by working in coalition, working with peers, working with government organizations within your area, as well as in other areas and other countries. And in that way we build as NGOs and government officials. We build trusted partnerships so we can say: “Hey, this person is on his way back. Can you please help there? I know this person there, whom I trust, who can help?” And that is how we weave a global safety net so that fewer victims fall through the cracks and disappear into the unseen forever. So that for me is why I want to encourage people to contact Free To Fly so that we can set up training for them together. So that we can help people be informed and know how to respond effectively.


PH: Wow, thank you Anita. I sit here a little bit more informed about data collation and mapping and also leaving this interview with the kind of mindset that says :we need to raise a lot more awareness, not only on anti trafficking, but the awareness that should be raised. The collaboration between  governments, NGOs, and people that work in the anti trafficking field can just become that safety net that you just mentioned now. And that we could cover so many people, children, women, that are on a daily basis caught in sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Anita, we want to thank you so much for joining us here on the podcast with Free To Fly. And we wish you and Freedom Ports Alliance all the best. We hope that through this platform we have created awareness for your organization as well as the amazing work that you guys do and the training that you guys offer with regard to people be more clued up about anti trafficking. Thank you so much.



PH: Thank you so much for the opportunity Pierre and the Free To Fly team. And we really look forward to many more years of collaboration for the freedom of everyone. Thank you very  much!