Human trafficking around the world: Hidden in plain sight


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Human trafficking is one of those issues that rankles people even when they don’t understand its actual shape and scope. At least a dozen books have appeared in the past few years describing the horrors of sex trafficking, a gruesome practice of enslavement and perversion affecting millions of (mostly) girls the world over, including, with alarming frequency, in the United States. But as Stephanie Hepburn and Rita J. Simon point out in their encyclopedic study of global trafficking, the larger crime is forced-labor trafficking, which is three times greater than that for sex commerce. The official response to each is inadequate — under-resourced, legally fragile and too often complicit.

The scale of these crimes is staggering. “As of 2005 this global phenomenon reaped an annual worldwide profit of $44.3 billion and affected more than 12.3 million persons,” the authors write. About half are children. Other forms of trafficking are rampant — human organs, most prominently — but forced labor accounts for two-thirds of the cases. Victims are often recruited with promises of jobs abroad or within their own countries, but once in the grip of the traffickers they are essentially slaves. Various forms of subjugation are involved, such as debt bondage resulting from exorbitant fees for transportation, food and housing, but it all amounts to a system of violently enforced servitude from which escape is only a remote possibility.

While the common perception of trafficking tends to focus on sexual exploitation in places such as Thailand and Dubai, the United States is among the top 10 destinations. Thousands of victims are brought into America each year from all over the world. They are used mainly for household labor, agriculture, food and care services, and in the garment industry. Those in industry are housed in substandard quarters and do not get paid, or owe so much because of the traffickers’ “fees” that payment is irrelevant.

Sex trafficking to the United States is estimated to bring 50,000 women and girls to our shores each year, mainly for prostitution. The authors cite a case of Mexican women trafficked to Florida to work, they thought, as maids or waitresses. “Upon arrival in the United States, the traffickers raped the women and girls, confiscated their travel documents, and forced them to prostitute. Guards prevented them from leaving the brothels, and if the victims tried to escape they faced severe physical punishment as well as threats of deportation.”

Forced labor follows similar patterns the world over. Hepburn and Simon march the reader through 23 countries, including several in Europe, to illustrate different dimensions of the problem. This is not just a pathology of “Ninotchkas” from post-Soviet Russia or sex-crazed sheiks or sex tourists in Bangkok. This is an enormous enterprise that touches every corner of the globe.

Most disquieting is how laws in many countries are used against trafficking victims. For example, in Italy, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, laborers brought in illegally, under duress, can be put in detention, fined and deported as illegal immigrants. Time and again, the authors explain, trafficking victims are charged and sometimes jailed for prostitution or using false papers, among other lawbreaking. In India and elsewhere, the law enforcement system is so deplorable when it comes to prosecuting traffickers that it’s the rare case that makes it to a conviction. The authors recount that “a rescued victim from Nepal was repeatedly deposed and continually asked embarrassing questions in an attempt to get her to withdraw the charges.” Laws are changing, and some judicial and police practices are improving, but the pace is slow and incommensurate with the scale of the crimes.

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Article prepared by Klaus Cooper