Migration Pulse

“40,000” Victims: Sex trafficking, the 2006 World Cup, and the 2012 Olympics

Months ago I attended an event titled, “(How) Will the 2012 Olympics Impact Trafficking in London?” One part has stuck in my head: the media claimed that 40,000 people were sex trafficked into Germany for the World Cup in 2006, a warning now targeted at the 2012 London Olympics.
September 12, 2011
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Angela Hsu

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.


Hi Angela

Many sex workers and sex workers activists in London are concerned that the Olympics will result in crackdowns on sex workers - which research has shown most often results in arrests and deportations of people for migration crimes. The vast majority of those people working in the sex industry are not trafficked (see N. Mai 2009 (http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/research-units/iset/projects/esrc-migrant-wor...) and while trafficking is a serious abuse that needs to be addressed, current trafficking laws and strategies tend to put sex workers at risk, rather than stop trafficking.

You may be interested in some research undertaken by x:talk, a sex worker rights organisation, that looks into what happens when sex work is conflated with trafficking - it outlines the worrying effect that it has on the safety and vulnerability of people working in the industry - and particularly migrant sex workers. The x:talk report generally argues that the "numbers game", which you have rightly identified, about how many people are trafficked into sex work is less about addressing trafficking or reducing the risk of exploitation within the sex industry and more about a prohibitionist agenda with regards to the sex industry in general:

Human Rights, Sex Work and the Challenge of Trafficking: http://www.xtalkproject.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/reportfinal1.pdf

There is no doubt that sex trafficking is vile and despicable.
However the police and UKBA have used this as an opportunity to target non EU migrants and have treated them very badly.
Most of them have been deported without the opportunity to appeal against their deportation.
I dont think the welfare of these females is what UKBA is concerned with. More like figures to add to theur statistics of deprtation for political reasons.

Xanthe, thanks so much for your comments, I'm looking forward to reading this report.
Likewise, Michael, your points are very grounded in the reality of UKBA's intentions and overarching ideology about migration. There is so much instrumentalisation going on here--of statistics, arrests, moral claims--that I'm am really glad the two of you are vocal and active about bringing light to it.

Hi Angela, good piece! However, it is not accurate to say that 97% of London sex workers are migrants. The study that that figure comes from only looked at organised indoor prostitution. Street prostitution and independent indoor workers were excluded, and both of these are likely to have a far larger proportion of natives. The study also only looked at women. It's important to get these details correct because the perception of the sex industry as being almost entirely a migrant sector is one of the things that fuels trafficking hysteria.

Thanks so much, Wendy! Especially when the point of this is to call out the problems with misrepresentation and conflation, your comment is critical. I've requested that part to be edited ASAP, so as to not further the misunderstanding.

It is very obvious that UK has an ultra right wing Government.
Let us not kid ourselves that we live in a fair and democratic society because we are allowed to put a tick on a piece of paper every 4 years.
When you have a Government that will sit nicely with BNP . then you expect vunerable people in the society to be targeted for vile and uncivilised treatment.

We've just released a new publication on this issue:

A new publication from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW): http://www.gaatw.org/publications/WhatstheCostofaRumour.11.15.2011.pdf

What's the Cost of a Rumour? A guide to sorting out the myths and the facts about sporting events and trafficking

There has been a lot published on the supposed link between sporting events and trafficking, but how much of it is true and how much of it is useful? In this guide, we review the literature from past sporting events, and find that they do not cause increases in trafficking for prostitution. The guide takes a closer look at why this unsubstantiated idea still captures the imagination of politicians and some media, and offers stakeholders a more constructive approach to address trafficking beyond short-term events. We hope this guide will help stakeholders quickly correct misinformation about trafficking, develop evidence-based anti-trafficking responses, and learn what worked and what didn’t in past host cities.

Fantastic, comprehensive, and insightful publication. Congratulations and thanks for sharing!

Thankg GAATW. We'll put this up on the News section of the website.

MRN Team

Super Bowl 2011:
According to the media hype There was supposed to be hundreds of thousands of under age child sex slaves kidnapped and forced to have sex with super bowl fans. At the Dallas Super Bowl 2011. WHAT HAPPENED TO ALL OF THEM????????????

It was all a big lie told by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, government officials, and various anti-prostitution groups: Traffick911, Not for Sale, Change-org A Future Not A Past, Polaris Project, Salvation Army, Women’s Funding Network, and the Dallas Women’s Foundation, which are anti-prostitution groups that tell lies in order to get grant money from the government and charities to pay their high salaries, and get huge amounts of money into their organizations.

As proved in the link below:

Top FBI agent in Dallas (Robert Casey Jr.) sees no evidence of expected spike in child sex trafficking:

“Among those preparations was an initiative to prevent an expected rise in sex trafficking and child prostitution surrounding the Super Bowl. But Robert Casey Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas office, said he saw no evidence that the increase would happen, nor that it did.
“In my opinion, the Super Bowl does not create a spike in those crimes,” he said. “The discussion gets very vague and general. People mixed up child prostitution with the term human trafficking, which are different things, and then there is just plain old prostitution.”

This myth of thousands or millions of underage sex slaves tries to make every sports fan a sex criminal. No matter what the sport is, or in what country it is in.

Brian McCarthy isn't happy. He's a spokesman for the NFL. Every year he's forced to hear why his customers are adulterers and child molesters. Brian McCarthy says the sport/super bowl sex slave story is a urban legend, with no truth at all.

I do not like the idea of people getting the wrong information and believing lies, no matter what the topic is. The Sex trafficking, slavery issue is one of the biggest lies being told today. It is amazing to me how people will believe such lies so easily. The media is to blame for this. I wonder why they feel such a need to report wrong stats, numbers and information about this topic without doing proper research.

the media will say that millions of people are sex slaves without doing any real research on the topic. Only taking the word of special interest anti-prostitution groups which need to generate money in the form of huge government grants from taxpayers, and charities. These "non profit" group's employees make huge salaries, therefore they need to lobby the government, and inflate and invent victims in order to get more money into their organizations. If you look into how many real kidnapped forced against their will sex slaves there are, and not just take the anti-prostitution groups word for it. You will be very surprised.
Where are all the forced sex slaves? I would like to meet the millions of slaves and see for myself if they were kidnapped and forced against their will.

These groups lobby the government in a big way, getting Politicians to truly believe their lies.

Sex trafficking is illegal and the pentities are very severe. It is very difficult to force someone to be a sex slave, they would have to have 24 hour guards posted and be watched 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Have the threat of violence if they refused, and have no one notice and complain to the authorities or police. They would need to hide from the general public yet still manage to see customers from the general public and not have the customers turn the traffickers in to the police. They would need to provide them with medical care, food, shelter, and have all their basic needs met. They would need to have the sex slaves put on a fake front that they enjoyed what they were doing, act flirtatious and do their job well. They would have to deal with the authorities looking for the missing women, and hide any money they may make, since it comes from illegal activity. They must do all of this while constantly trying to prevent the sex slaves from escaping and reporting them to the police. They would need to prevent the general public from reporting them into the police. This is extremely difficult to do, which makes this activity rare. These criminals would be breaking dozens of major laws not just one. Kidnapping itself is a serious crime. There are many laws against sex trafficking, sex slavery, kidnapping, sex abuse, rape, sexual harassment etc. If someone is behind it, they will be breaking many serious laws, be in big trouble, and will go to jail for many long years. And do you actually think that there is a long line of people who want to have a career as a sex slave kidnapping pimp?

Sex Trafficking in Sports Events links: