Interview with Stephanie Hepburn, author of Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight

Stephanie Hepburn, author of Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain SightThe following is an interview with Stephanie Hepburn, coauthor (with Rita Simon) of Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight (For more on the book, you can also watch a video of Stephanie Hepburn discussing the book.):

Question: What made you interested in writing about the topic of human trafficking?

Stephanie Hepburn: I moved to New Orleans in February 2006, not long after Hurricane Katrina. Just like any place in any country that experiences a natural disaster, the infrastructure was disrupted, the population was in flux and law enforcement personnel were overextended. In order to rebuild the city there was a sudden demand for low-wage labor, which created an ideal scenario for labor exploitation and human trafficking. Further compounding the scenario is that the United States government temporarily suspended numerous protections for workers that affected wages, safety and health. Also, the government temporarily suspended immigration-enforcement requirements. These temporary suspensions compounded the situation and allowed illicit contractors to move in, and bring in and exploit workers unnoticed.

This is actually where the latter part of the book title (Hidden in Plain Sight) came from: the workers were exploited out in the open, but they were hidden in plain sight because no one was paying attention to the exploitation. I first began to research the human trafficking cases in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region and after seeing the common patterns I added the entire U.S. and 23 other nations.

Q: What do you want to accomplish with this book?

SH: I wrote the book to attract a broad audience and be accessible to anyone – whether an academic, expert in the field or a layperson who happens to be curious about the topic. I wanted to bring about improved awareness and understanding of all forms of human trafficking. When most people think of human trafficking they think of sex trafficking. They aren’t incorrect but that certainly isn’t the entire picture. In fact, the International Labour Organization estimates that 68 percent of the 20.9 million victims of human trafficking are forced labor victim, while 22 percent are victims of forced sexual exploitation. The remaining victims are in state-imposed forms of forced labor. To me, all of these victims are forced labor victims and it doesn’t serve any positive purpose to differentiate — it simply results in disparate laws and treatment.

I also wanted to tell the stories of victims and strike a balance between humanizing the experience and giving essential statistical data. Many of the books that I have read on human trafficking tend to go in one direction or the other. I aimed to achieve both. To me, the statistics are necessary for giving as close to an accurate image as possible of the extent of human trafficking, while the stories are the glue and heart of the book. They prohibit reader detachment and give a clear image of what victims experience from beginning to end.

Q: What makes this topic more challenging to research than other topics?

SH: The challenge with researching human trafficking is that not all of the puzzle pieces are accessible. In many ways this experience was similar to archeology — I had to dig to find fragments that could be put together. Not only is there a dearth of literature on the topic, but also many nations are just beginning to acknowledge internal trafficking and forced labor as human trafficking. This adversely affects the data that are collected by governments as it leaves out a significant number of victims. The result is that I had to dive into non-traditional resources such as case documents and newspaper articles. I had to find ways to discover data that may be a bit more hidden and in doing so I interviewed anti-trafficking program coordinators, NGO directors, university researchers and directors, government employees, counsel attorneys of landmark trafficking cases and documentarians.

In nations where access to case files is at a minimum or where the government is less than open or simply does not adequately collect data, newspaper articles were an essential tool. Newspapers allowed me to find cases that were buried or improperly categorized and gave a more well-rounded image of the trafficking scenario in that nation.

Q. What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?

SH: I was most captivated by the strength of victims and the victories that resulted. One story that stands out in my mind is that of Hadijatou Mani Koraou, a woman who was born a slave in Niger. Traditional slavery (a form of human trafficking) is not uncommon in Niger among minority ethnic groups such as the Toureg, Maure and Peule. At the age of 12 Mani’s master sold her to El Hadj Soulemayne Naroua as a fifth wife (sadaka), which meant that she was acquired to work as both servant and concubine. She was raped and beaten any time Naroua found her disobedient.

With the help of local attorneys and human rights organization, and after exhausting all legal options in Niger, Mani brought a case against the Nigerien government before the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice for failure to implement laws against slavery. The verdict was groundbreaking. The court held that Niger had the opportunity and obligation to protect Mani when she came before them and awarded her $22,626.94 in restitution. Not only is the decision enormously significant, but also what is striking is the will and endurance of a person who has been told from her first breath that she is not equal and that she has no rights. She withstood rape, mental and physical abuse and improper arrest and still maintained the willpower to push forward with cases against the person who enslaved her and also the government that failed her.

Q. What stood out to you in your research?

SH: I found that no matter what nation I explored or what form of trafficking took place, human trafficking and the way it is performed is shockingly similar. The common method is that potential victims are lured by false jobs and the victims are charged exorbitant fees for recruitment, visas, travel, housing, food and even the use of on-the-job tools. Additional fees — or fines — are tacked on for “poor behavior” or not meeting certain work quotas. This formula is incredibly successful — as the victims’ debt rises exponentially, the victims end up owing more than they earn.

The reality is that the traffickers never intended to pay the victims and they use other techniques to ensure that the victims don’t attempt escape. Typical methods used worldwide for limiting the movement of victims include isolating the victims, withholding the victims’ visas and other documentation, threatening deportation, threatening to harm the victims or their family members and physically harming the victims.

These elements remain similar whether we are discussing Eva, whose family friend promised her a legitimate job abroad when she was 15 years old, but instead she was forced to prostitute in London, or Gomes da Silva, a Brazilian worker who accepted a good job with decent pay, free lodging and free food, but instead he was taken by bus to a cattle ranch surrounded by armed guards in a desolate area of the Brazilian jungle.

In addition to false recruitment and confiscation of travel documents, rape is a common characteristic of sex trafficking, though it also occurs in labor trafficking. It is often used as a fear tactic to deter victims from attempting escape. This can be seen in a case of women and girls trafficked from Mexico to Florida with the promise of housekeeper and waitress jobs. When they arrived in the United States, the traffickers raped the women and girls, confiscated their travel documents, and forced them to prostitute. A sex trafficker in South Africa told an undercover investigative team that he and his colleagues call raping victims ‘washing the hands.’

Q: What is the primary point that you want your readers to take from the book?

SH: I hope that readers come away with a greater understanding on the topic of human trafficking, but most of all I want readers to note that no nation is free from this brutal trade. This is a worldwide issue and no matter where the reader lives it is an issue that is devastatingly harming people in the reader’s own city and in his/ her own nation. There is often a detachment that occurs when readers think of an issue as “other” — something that happens to people in lands far away. This isn’t the case and my objective in the country selection of the book is to illustrate — regardless of whether a nation is first, second or third world — that when it comes to the issue of human trafficking no nation is exempt.

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