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World Cup 2014: On myths and reality of sex trafficking

Human rights violations in the context of the World Cup 2014 go beyond human trafficking and child sexual exploitation.

Last updated: 07 Jun 2014 09:53
Sonja Dolinsek

Sonja Dolinsek is a PhD student in Contemporary History at the University of Erfurt and a blogger and human rights activist focusing in particular on the rights of migrants, sex workers and trafficked persons.
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Brazil sex workers have faced a crackdown ahead of the World Cup [AP]

On June 12, the World Cup starts and millions of football fans will travel to Brazil for this mega event. Meanwhile, non-governmental organisations and the media have focused on social problems aggravated by preparations for the event.

Three related topics have been receiving particular attention in the past weeks: human trafficking, child sexual exploitation and sex work. All three are supposed to increase during the upcoming weeks. But does research and the experience of other mega sport events actually substantiate the claims of an increase in trafficking and sex work? And what other issues should we be looking at from a human rights perspective?

Human trafficking and its connection to sports events have been discussed since the World Cup 2006 in Germany. Big and costly media campaigns warned of the rising problem of human trafficking of adult women in the sex industry. Since then, media and NGO campaigns became particularly visible before and around the World or European Cup, the Olympics and the Super Bowl. What can we learn from past experiences and research about this connection?

Sex trafficking and sports?

Looking back, we realise not only that media estimates of human trafficking victims for both South Africa and Germany before the event were exactly the same (40,000 people), but that after both events, there was no evidence proving this number.

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In Germany, the Federal Criminal Office or Bundeskriminalamt found that only five cases of human trafficking were directly connected to the World Cup. At the same time, its official report said that many of the migrant sex workers who had arrived in Germany hoping to earn more money left earlier because business did not increase as they had expected.

The same was true for South Africa and "the prediction of increased human trafficking was a gross overestimation based on unsubstantiated evidence", as the documentary "Don't shout too loud" has shown.

In the report "What's the cost of a rumour?", the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) based in Bangkok pointed to common mistakes in anti-trafficking campaigns and criticised the surge in uncritical anti-trafficking reporting around sporting events as counter-productive and even harmful.

Not only is there no empirically proven link between sporting events and a rise in human trafficking, but furthermore: "Trafficking is not the same thing as sex work." The report points out: "There is a difference between women trafficked into prostitution and sex workers who migrate to other countries for work."

Furthermore, false rumours about human trafficking come at a cost. Not only are precious resources wasted in sensationalist campaigns rather than in social projects on the ground, but anti-sex work and anti-migration measures, including the increased policing of sex workers, are encouraged. These measures increase the vulnerability of migrant sex workers. Generally, the way human trafficking is represented resembles more a myth than the reality on the ground.

Another recent study pointed to the lack of empirical data concerning to connection between major sports events and child sexual exploitation. The report points out that "most attention is given to trafficking and sexual exploitation when labour and displacement are probably bigger problems". Child sexual exploitation is less connected to such events, but rather to "diverted services, family stress, poverty and domestic violence", i.e. structural factors that existed before sports events and will exist thereafter.

The fact that data does not support claims of a rising problem of human trafficking or child sexual exploitation does not mean, however, that we can just look away. It means that we should take a broader look at social problems and envisage more sustainable and long-term solutions, which go beyond short-term media hype.

The World Cup from a social and human rights perspective

A recent article on child sexual exploitation in Brazil began with the description of a sexual encounter between a sex worker who had been a former child prostitute and her client. While such a scene may encourage readers to read the full article, the authors not only unnecessarily sexualise the topic and produce a slightly titillating effect around a rather serious topic, but they also fail to investigate the violations of children's and human rights in the years leading up to the World Cup.

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As the German Branch of Ecpat points out, commercial child sexual exploitation is already a huge problem, and even though the risk of exploitation is higher during the World Cup, there is no empirical data confirming such an increase during sports events. The focus should rather be directed to the social background of commercial sexual exploitation of children, which is partially due to poverty and lack of decent homes for children.

An overlooked, but essential aspect of the increased risk of children in child sexual exploitation is the forced displacement of people and families from their homes in the context of the so called "pacification" of the favelas or slums. "Pacification" is a police strategy carried out by military-style "Police Pacification Units", in order to reduce crime, improve the public image of Rio de Janeiro and to secure the areas close to event sites.

According to researchers and NGOs, this measure has not only led to an increased militarised policing of the favelas - the informal settlements that house roughly 22 percent of Rio's population - but also to the forced displacement of many inhabitants, including children. UN independent experts reported about "allegations of evictions without due process or in detriment of international human rights standards".

The "Shift"project has documented large-scale construction projects for the World Cup and its impact on the local population and the urban geography. It found that even reserves for some indigenous groups had been curtailed, with ensuing protests.

Sex workers' homes in Niteroi were violently raided by the police and some were forcibly evicted. Other residents, including elderly and children, were forced onto the streets. Given the public focus on Brazil, we should pressure the Brazilian government to stop its police actions against sex workers, rather than stepping them up. Similarly, the media should focus on a rights-based reporting on prostitution and sex work in Brazil, rather than presenting unrealistic numbers about an increase in migrant sex workers, which have proven unsubstantiated.

Last but not least, big sports events like the World Cup rely on a great variety of labour - from construction sites, gastronomy and other services on the local level to the supply chains catering to these services and the production of merchandise, sporting goods and uniforms. Human rights and labour rights violations can occur at every stage in this process, not just at the end-user sites.

To tackle these issues, we need a sustainable approach with a broader perspective on the connection between human rights violations in the contexts of mega sports events. This includes not only looking at human trafficking and sexual exploitation, but also at labour, human and children's rights. In particular, a stronger focus on the rights of trafficked persons and children as well as workers' and migrants' rights, including sex workers, should take priority over sensationalist reporting.

Sonja Dolinsek is a PhD student in Contemporary History at the University of Erfurt and a blogger and human rights activist focusing in particular on the rights of migrants, sex workers and trafficked persons.

Follow her on Twitter: @sonjdol

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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