World Cup Fever: Has it Really Led to an Increase in Trafficking?

World Cup mania has struck worldwide, and along with the stories about team victories and groups of fans gathering cheer on their home teams, are stories about the economic effect the World Cup has on South Africa. Countries host sporting events on the scale of the World Cup and the Olympics for a number of reasons, but attracting tourists and boosting local economies is certainly a big motivator.

Despite all the positives to report on, the media loves a downside–and for huge sporting events, the downside is human trafficking, which the United Nations defines as:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

Mainstream media outlets have been reporting that 40,000 women have been trafficked into South African brothels for the World Cup. That’s a pretty horrifying statistic – except that there simply aren’t any good citations that confirm it.

Matthew Greennall wrote a great blog post that deconstructs the 40,000 figure and links to several articles that have used this “statistic” but can’t corroborate it; Global Voices likewise has a post flagging this problematic bit of reporting. Laura Agustín, author of the book Sex At the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets, and the Rescue Industry, points out that in 2006 the same 40,000 number was reported with regards to the World Cup in Germany (where prostitution is legal). Her post also highlights some of the important parts of a very in-depth academic article from Globalization and Health, Sex work and the 2010 FIFA World Cup: time for public health imperatives to prevail.

To be fair, there is some critique of the World Cup trafficking scare happening in mainstream media – for example, this month Yahoo! Sports ran piece called “Debunking the World Cup’s Biggest Myth” and the Wall Street Journal published an article called “Suspect Estimates of Trafficking at the World Cup”– but the voices of South Africans, and particularly people who work in the sex industry, were entirely absent from the articles. It’s a shame, because people in South Africa certainly have quite a bit to say on the subject.

The South African grassroots organization Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT) has recently launched an online resource about their push to decriminalize sex work in South Africa.  In addition to useful resources about myths and facts, and why people should support decriminalization, the website features the perspectives of sex workers themselves and critique of the reports on trafficking and the World Cup. SWEAT is careful to make the distinction between trafficking (which involves coercion or explicit force) and sex work (which, like many jobs, is often undertaken because of the circumstances of a person’s life), while many news reports present these situations as interchangeable. SWEAT supports anti-trafficking initiatives while also supporting sex workers’ rights to a livelihood without violence or discrimination. Their work also focuses on the examining the realities of HIV transmission among the sex working population.

South African Researchers Marlise Richter and Tamlyn Monson wrote up a Human Trafficking and Migration issue brief on the subject, in which they write:

… there is no evidence to support claims that trafficking is already a significant problem in the Southern African region. Furthermore, there is no evidence to support the expectation that a large sporting event such as the 2010 Soccer World Cup is likely to increase human trafficking levels. The claim that trafficking is linked to large-scale sporting events is based, implicitly or explicitly, on the belief that events which attract large numbers of tourists – especially male tourists – increase the demand for paid sex. This supposedly increased demand is then assumed to be filled through women (and children) trafficked for sex.

Germany’s experiences during the 2006 Soccer World Cup contradict claims that trafficking volumes will rise during the 2010 event in South Africa. Before the 2006 Soccer World Cup, media reports and NGOs claimed that 40,000 women and children would be trafficked into Germany. Yet, in research conducted after the 2006 World Cup, researchers found evidence of only five cases of trafficking.

Trafficking is a very serious topic, but it’s important to recognize the differences between trafficking and sex work, without doing so, we do a disservice to both victims of trafficking and sex workers. It’s great that the World Cup has brought attention to these issues, but we need to make sure we’re doing it in the right way, and that the voices of those who are affected are included in the solutions.



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