Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight

Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight

Author: Stephanie Hepburn and Rita J. Simon
Publisher: New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. 552p.
Reviewer: Anita Lavorgna | January 2014

Human trafficking is a topic that has generally received quite some attention from both criminological researchers and media, in particular over the last two decades. Especially sex trafficking—a sub-species of the criminal phenomenon of trafficking in human beings—has largely informed legal and scholarly debates. However, as explained by Stephanie Hepburn and Rita J. Simon, narratives over human trafficking suffer from a major problem: the expression “human trafficking” itself “triggers preconceived notions” (page 2). Indeed, in the common perception, this term is generally associated with the sexual exploitation of girls and children in certain remote corners of the world, and in many countries neither policy makers nor the general population consider like practices (such as male forced labour) as human trafficking. An unfortunate consequence of this limited understanding is that official anti-trafficking responses are often insufficient or badly implemented; even if human trafficking has received increasing attention from policy makers and law enforcement, this phenomenon is still continuing, for a turnover estimated at about 45 billion dollars per year.

By integrating statistical data with media sources, case documents, trafficking reports, and interviews with key observers, Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight sheds some light on key factors that are currently obstructing the efforts to counter the heinous crime of trafficking in human beings. While often a very wide scope can be dangerous for a successful study, in the case of this book the wide scope is probably what makes it such a valuable reading.

To begin, Hepburn and Simon adopt a very broad meaning of “human trafficking.” Not only do the authors take into consideration both trafficking for sexual exploitation and trafficking for forced labor (that is generally under-investigated, even if it accounts for the majority of the total number of victims of human trafficking), but they consider also organ trafficking, muti murders (i.e., human trafficking to use body parts in African traditional medicine) and child sex tourism. Furthermore, while studies on human trafficking mainly focus on transnational trafficking flows, the authors include in their analysis also internal trafficking (i.e., trafficking in human beings within a single country). This comprehensive understanding of what “human trafficking” is allows the authors not only to offer a useful overview of this issue, but also to highlight common patterns in the trafficking flows and similar vulnerabilities in the responses.

Second, the book offers very wide geographical coverage. Indeed, human trafficking affects all countries of the world, as emphasized by the authors in the very beginning of the book. “[T]he reality is that wherever we may live, regardless of city or nation, some form of human trafficking exists” (p. 1), and some characteristics of human trafficking are similar all over the world. However, the nature and extent of human trafficking vary significantly among geographical regions, and “each country has its own environmental, cultural, and geopolitical factors that create a unique set of anti-trafficking issues and obstacles” (p.427). In their study, Hepburn and Simon consider a total of 24 countries from all the continents. Each country’s trafficking situation and their existing anti-trafficking measures are described.

Third, not only do the authors provide a synthesized overview of the existing criminal panorama and anti-trafficking policies in every country taken into consideration, but they also critically delve into practical and consequential issues such as what happens to victims after rescue or escape and to traffickers after sentencing. Furthermore, the role and the presence of anti-trafficking movements and NGOs, as well as the attitudes of policy makers and law enforcement bodies are scrutinized. To see how the law is implemented in certain countries and how victims themselves often risk being criminalized because of contradictions and flaws in policy agendas is troubling. However, it is in expanding on these practical and often neglected aspects that probably is the major contribution by Hepburn and Simon.

The organization of the book is unusual, but overall effective. After a very informative and complete introduction, where the rationale and the scope of the study are explained, the 24 countries are categorized into 12 groups depending on some common characteristics or unique features they have and that facilitate human trafficking. For instance, some of the categorizations regard the existence of ineffective immigration policies; the presence of people (e.g., tribal peoples and refugees) who cannot access the formal labor market; problems related to socio-cultural discrimination against women; issues regarding the fact that human trafficking and human smuggling are often confused, with the risk that responses are inadequate and “not tailored to the specifics of each issue” (p. 157); and, problems regarding legal difficulties in prosecuting. These groupings are, however, sometimes at bit unclear. In particular, legal, economic, and cultural issues are mixed up, which can slightly confuse the reader. There is also some overlap in the categories used by the authors. Perhaps the use of macro-categories (e.g., “legal,” “social,” “customary” issues) would have been more effective. Furthermore, some themes that are only touched upon (such as the role of corruption in human trafficking, p. 371) could have been addressed in more detail. The book concludes with an excellent summary and some hints to ongoing problems and ideal solutions.

Overall, Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight is a much needed book that provides an updated and complete account of the main issues related to human trafficking, and is a valuable contribution to the dedicated literature. In particular, it is very successful in casting light on the complexities of human trafficking, and it could potentially serve as an opportune starting point to foster informed debates seeking to advance anti-trafficking policies. While this book is certainly very effective in introducing the topic of human trafficking to newcomers, because of its wide scope and the broad geographical coverage, it should also offer useful insights to anyone professionally interested in current trends of human trafficking.

Anita Lavorgna, Ph.D. candidate in Criminology at the School of International Studies, University of Trento, Italy

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