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Human Trafficking and the World Cup: How big is the threat?


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"Human trafficking and enslavement is a growing problem, with the poor being particularly vulnerable. Awareness is one of the tools to fight it," wrote Rudo Mungoshi on the City of Johannesburg website on 17 May.

The article is part of the "massive" awareness campaign to counter human trafficking, particularly during the Fifa World Cup. The Gauteng campaign has three legs - public awareness raising, "improving co-ordination in the fight against human trafficking" and the identification of new measures to combat trafficking." This seemingly goliath task appears to fall on the City's Migrant Helpdesk and its assistant director for human development, Thuli Mlangeni.


The earnest ‘awareness raising' efforts of those organisations and state structures that have dedicated themselves to preventing the expected increase in human trafficking during the soccer event have certainly had an impact on the psyche of the population. Panicked parents are fearful of taking their small children to the mall with them - scared that syndicates of traffickers will snatch them. Others fear that allowing their child to play in the front yard during the soccer festival will lure traffickers to the suburbs. The City of Johannesburg seems to believe that these fears are justified - according to Mlangeni, "Children and teenagers are easier (sic) targets and are likely to be recruited in areas around host stadiums."

The focus of the City of Johannesburg's campaign is Soweto and Alexandra where a series of road shows over the next month will ‘educate' people about human trafficking. The motivation for choosing those areas was "because they were largely affected by xenophobia in 2008 and have a high density of informal settlements, making it possible for human trafficking to take place there." It is not clear what the link might be between human trafficking and xenophobic attacks, if indeed there is any relation between the two issues.


This begs the question: Are these "massive" and no doubt costly campaigns informed by evidence and are they targeting the right people? Are fears about an increase in human trafficking during the World Cup justified? Should you keep your children indoors? To answer these questions it is important to take a closer look at the claims made and weigh them against the available evidence.

Before the 2006 World Cup in Germany similar fears existed that human trafficking would massively increase during the event and it would be spurred by the demand by fans for paid sex. The same concerns emerged before the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Indeed, just as we have seen in South Africa, media reports in Germany during 2006 claimed that they would see an increase of 40 000 prostitutes of whom a large percentage would have been trafficked.

Yet, an investigation by the International Organisation for Migration shortly after the 2006 event found that there was no increase in human trafficking during the World Cup and that the estimates of 40 000 sex workers were "unfounded" and "unrealistic". Indeed, the report (of September 2006) concludes that there is no credible data to link trafficking [for sexual exploitation] and major events. Similarly, neither the IOM nor the Greek police noted cases of trafficking for sexual exploitation during the Olympic Games. Indeed, the four victims of trafficking that the IOM assisted in Greece in 2004 did not occur during the sporting event.
There were several reasons offered in the IOM report as to why there was no increase in trafficking during the month-long German World Cup. On the one hand, NGO and police experts who were interviewed argued that the measures put in place, including awareness raising campaigns and increased law enforcement during the event might have played a role in preventing trafficking. On the other hand, the demand for sexual services was much lower than had been expected. This was explained by the fact that fans typically attended the world cup in family groups thus reducing the opportunity for men to purchase sexual services. Furthermore, most fans were travelling on restricted budgets and so there was not extra cash for buying sex. It was also argued that due to the short duration of the World Cup there was little chance that traffickers would be able to realise a return on their investment, given the costs involved in bringing victims across borders and keeping them in bondage.

While all these may be credible explanations for why there was no increase in instances of trafficking, we simply have no way of assessing their veracity. The fact is that the expectations and fears that trafficking would peak during the event appear to have been unfounded. Part of the problem is that there is no clear evidence of the scale of the problem. Although Mlangei states that it is difficult to collect data on trafficking because it is largely hidden, it is still assumed to be "rife in Gauteng." Whether this is true or not is unknown because there is no evidence to back up such an assertion. International figures are at best rough estimates are often contentious and may not be applicable to South Africa. This may be compared for example, to the large amount of available and credible data of the scale and nature of sexual and domestic violence perpetrated against women and children in our country.
While it is completely understandable that governments and various organisations want to prevent human trafficking, it is important to be aware of the possible unintended and negative consequences that can occur as a result of such campaigns; especially if they are not based on evidence. Organisations like the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women have drawn attention to the fact that many counter trafficking campaigns around the world have undermined the rights of victims and those who are believed to be vulnerable to trafficking (such as the poor and those living in rural areas).

Efforts to prevent trafficking have, in some countries, resulted in the restriction of the movement of young women, on the basis that keeping them close to home and in school prevents them from falling victim to traffickers. Yet, restricting their movement is a violation of their rights and is not in their best interests as it can prevent opportunities for employment and economic activity. In the same way denouncing as traffickers those who have traditionally assisted adults and children to migrate from rural towns to cities in West Africa have both made it more difficult and dangerous for those who wish to justifiably migrate to areas where there are opportunities for better quality of life.

Most importantly, anti-trafficking campaigns often represent women as weak, passive, easily duped, vulnerable and in need of rescue. In so doing they contribute to negative patriarchal stereotypes that undermine the status and equality of women. These issues need to be seriously considered before embarking on what may end up being campaigns that do little to counter trafficking while causing unnecessary fear and panic.

There are certainly ways in which the police and public can assist in preventing and countering trafficking if and when it does occur. On the basis of research conducted in the sex work industry in Cape Town between 2006 and 2008 it was recommended that the police should actively seek to encourage reporting by adult sex workers of cases of abuse, sexual exploitation and child prostitution. Adult sex workers are best placed to become aware of cases of forced prostitution or child prostitution that may occur as a result of trafficking. However, since they are also likely to experience (or have experienced) harassment, judgement or abuse at the hands of police and other government officials, it makes it very difficult for sex workers to report cases of abuse.

A key part of Government counter trafficking efforts should focus on making it easy and safe for sex workers to report cases of sexual exploitation and trafficking that they become aware of. While many people may feel morally uncomfortable with calls to legalise sex work, it is likely to be the most effective and practical method for countering the organised crime and trafficking that is associated with the trade. Government policy that is guided by sound evidence is more likely to reduce harm than that which is driven largely by fear and misguided moral concerns.

Written by: Chandré Gould, senior researcher in the Crime and Justice Programme of the ISS




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