“40,000” Victims: Sex trafficking, the 2006 World Cup, and the 2012 Olympics
Angela Hsu is a Masters student at the LSE studying Gender and Social Policy after attending Cornell University in New York. Her dissertation will focus on issues of gender, migration, identity and citizenship in the context of female migrant domestic workers in Israel. Since moving to London, she has interned at Migrants' Rights Network (MRN) and volunteered with the Hackney Migrant Centre and has also previously been affiliated with Kav LaOved (Worker’s Hotline) in Tel Aviv.
A write-up for the event commented, “It seems no-one knows where this figure comes from.” So here I attempt some journalistic sleuthing, seeking out who said what for what reason. Were 40,000 people sex trafficked? What did it mean for Germany and the “40,000” people? What will it mean for London in 2012?
The 2006 World Cup Games in Germany incited a lot of impassioned debate about sexual work, slavery, and trafficking. Given that prostitution in Germany was legalised in 2001, it was expected that sex trafficking rates would skyrocket as three million (mostly male) fans flooded the country for one month. As the Anti-Trafficking Alliance cites, “major sporting events have also been linked with increases in trafficking, prostitution and sexual assault in the past.” Feminist and human rights groups, activists and national leaders voiced concern; even the European Parliament expressed anxiety about trafficking, especially because of Germany’s “pro-prostitution” policies. Apprehension over sex trafficking spread like wildfire.
An online news article titled, “40,000 women 'sex trafficked' for World Cup: German government supports import of mostly poor from Central, Eastern Europe” pops up in countless blog-posts, news articles and chat rooms. As I continued searching about this elusive “40,000,” I found a quote from Ulrike Hauffe, head of the Women’s Committee in the city of Bremen, predicting a “veritable flood of prostitutes” into Germany, “estimates in the region of 30,000 to 40,000 women.” A different German news source wrote, “Experts estimate that as many as 40,000 prostitutes will travel to Germany to offer their services to soccer fans during the tournament.”
These three media representations represent the World Cup story in three different ways. The first claims a massive sex trafficking operation of innocent, deprived victims. The second is ambiguous: a flood of women, but due to their own choice or not? The third uses the term “offer their services,” framing sex workers as strategic and willing economic opportunists. A fourth storyline can be found in the Christian Today’s comment, “It has been estimated that between 40,000 to 100,000 people may be trafficked during the World Cup.” Now I’m really confused. 40,000 people—men or women, sex trafficked or not?
After the World Cup, several reports found the mysterious 40,000 to be unfounded and unrealistic. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and a representative from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) criticized the media reports as misleading. Carl Bialik from Wall Street Journal wrote an article called The Elusive Link Between Sex Trafficking and Sporting Events, claiming the 40,000 victims predicted to be trafficked into Germany did not materialize, that the number 40,000 was pulled “out of thin air” by a women’s organization and popularized by British media, and the World Cup was attended mostly by families, not single men. In addition, Dr. Nick Mai’s research claims the media and charities prefer to tell a simple story that labels women as victims only, not active economic players in the global sex market.
On the flip side, some anti-trafficking activists cited that low numbers of trafficked victims in 2006 reflected the success of many German efforts that prevented sex trafficking. Because so many victims were expected in Germany for the World Cup, the federal ministries, federal state police forces, and special counselling services/NGOs developed a preventative strategy. Press conferences, interviews, telephone hotlines, info posters and leaflets, and educational campaigns on TV and radio, combined with greater police presence in high risk areas, tightened border controls, specialized work groups, and increased awareness in hotels, proved to prevent the wave of sex trafficking.
So the debate is still up in the air, complicated by the fact that the very nature of sex trafficking and sex work makes it difficult to assess, track and research. But no matter what, the tendency to represent all 40,000 women as having the same experience is problematic. Media and government representations of the problem cannot be accepted as fact, as the issue is far more complicated than a story of “40,000 helpless victims” or “40,000 empowered sex workers”...Moreover, “trafficking is often wrongly conflated with sex work... Conflating trafficking with sex work is wrong and, worse, can mask the real issues of violence and exploitation that occur within both trafficking and sex work.”
Take, for instance, the fact that large sporting events have many impacts on prostitutes (trafficked or not) already residing within the country. A focus on only trafficked women fails to acknowledge the realities of those women already in the sex trade. Especially in London, where 97% of female organised, indoor sex workers are migrants, concern should focus on both awareness of recent sex trafficking and women who have migrated or been trafficked into London previously.
While the numbers are debatable, it’s clear that sporting events do have an impact on prostitution, and that prevention campaigns and increased law enforcement can reduce the risk of trafficking. Anti-trafficking charities, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Metropolitan Police Service and the Greater London Authority have joined forces to develop prevention plans and activities for the 2012 Games.
The Anti-Trafficking Alliance encourages London to be aware of the causes and consequences of sex trafficking and prostitution. As the Games draw nearer, hopefully the government, media, and we, as individual community members, can be more aware of how we talk about sex work versus trafficking and which numbers we use (and choose to believe).
Forced, unethical sex trafficking and chosen sex work as a profession both exist in London, and beyond. Awareness of the complexity of these circumstances, not unquestioned acceptance of media claims, is necessary for actually combating the issues at hand.