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.

Hepburn and Simon, lawyers associated with American University, parse the different causes and sources of human chattel — desperate poverty is the font of vulnerability, of course, but conflict-riddled countries are particularly prone to exploitation. In Iraq after the U.S. invasion, contractor immunity granted by U.S. officials in effect gave permission for the abuse of workers, who were imported from many of the same countries we see with large guest-worker programs: Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh. Reconstruction and the promise of good wages drew many workers who were then diverted to household servitude or worse.

Women in Iraq are “particularly vulnerable to a variety of crimes such as kidnapping, sexual assault, and human trafficking. One trafficking ring sold 128 Iraqi women to Saudi Arabia in 2008 and 2009. The ring was made up of Iraqi police officers, members of the Governorate’s Council . . . and security officials.” Poor families are preyed upon by syndicates pretending to be adoption agencies or nongovernmental organizations that will take their children to better lives, only to sell them into slavery or the sex trade, or as child soldiers. “I did anything possible to keep them with me,” a woman who sold two of her children explained, “but I lost my husband while I was pregnant with my fifth child and life became too hard.” The Iraqi government estimates that there are at least 900,000 widows in Iraq, and poverty among them is high.

Throughout this grim account, the authors only rarely let emotions slip through. The book reads like a policy document, sometimes a legal one, organized identically in each chapter. Statistics abound. This is a bit off-putting but nonetheless valuable. It’s a good companion to the 2010 book by Louise Shelley, “Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective,” which emphasizes the role of transnational organized crime. Kevin Bales, an anti-slavery activist, has written several books, including “The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today” and “Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy,” which use victims’ stories to illustrate larger themes, humanizing this topic without sensationalizing. Many other books on the subject published in the past 10 years, as the issue of trafficking has become more prominent, rely on personal testimony. Among the best is the remarkable “Sold” by Patricia McCormick, about a 13-year-old sold into prostitution. It is being made into a movie, as a few others have been.

Among these tales of slavery and sexual depravity — some of them published in novels that seem a hair’s breadth away from exploitation themselves — Hepburn and Simon’s “Human Trafficking Around the World” comes off as a kind of reference book or college text. But it’s an immensely learned and informative piece of work, much needed to prod and set aright the misperceptions and lethargy that beset this disturbing issue.

John Tirman is executive director and principal research scientist at the MIT Center for International Studies.



Hidden in Plain Sight

By Stephanie Hepburn and Rita J. Simon

Columbia Univ. 550 pp. Paperback, $27.95