Olympics 2012: visitors or victims?

Organized human trafficking gangs are expected to establish themselves in London to make the most of the opportunity of the 2012 Olympics. Authorities need to work with grassroots organisations in order to make sure that top-down interventions do not harm the very people they aim to protect

Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith
14 June 2010

What comes to mind when you think of the 2012 Olympics? The country throws its doors open to welcome the world to the greatest sporting celebration ever? Thousands of toned, sporty types in impossibly tight lycra clogging up the London transport system? Or perhaps the Olympic Games are summed up for you by two one-eyed mascots called Wenlock and Mandeville that look for all the world like “two giant mutated phalluses” according to Lucy Managan of The Guardian?

Or do the Olympic Games 2012 bring to mind an increase in the crime of human trafficking? There is evidence of an increase in human trafficking around large international sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics, which attract large numbers of unattached, often testosterone-fuelled young men, both at the games themselves and around construction sites in the run-up to the event. Organised criminal gangs are likely to establish themselves in London to make the most of the opportunity to exploit the workers on the £9 billion project leading up to 2012. Health experts at the Terence Higgins Trust say that the imminent arrival of thousands of construction workers could cause a surge in prostitution and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. Olympics chiefs and organisers are being urged by health experts and NGOs to address the impact of the predominantly male construction workforce, which is likely to total more than 100,000 over the next four years.

Graham Maxwell, deputy chief constable of South Yorkshire and a national spokesman on combatting trafficking, says “there is a possibility for labour exploitation and a possibility for sexual exploitation. There will be huge construction projects taking place…You will have young men together who earn considerable amounts of money. If they spend that money paying for sex, we must make sure they are aware there are women held against their will. Organised crime will operate wherever they can make a profit".

Warning that the Olympics allow traffickers to present victims as 'visitors', a report by the Canadian based Future Group made recommendations in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and outlines measures taken by host countries of recent international sporting events to prevent human trafficking.

Preventive campaigns do seem to work. An estimated 20-40,000 trafficked individuals were predicted for the 2006 Germany FIFA World Cup. Although there was a short-term increase in demand for prostitution, a combination of immigration controls, law-enforcement action, public information campaigns and victim support resulted in no obvious increase in trafficking across borders and instead, local prostitutes from elsewhere in the country were drawn in to host cities. In contrast, at the Athens Olympics, where prevention efforts were not as extensive, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) reports that researchers found the number of known human trafficking victims almost doubled.

Aware of the dangers of increased trafficking during the World Cup, South African authorities said that “the main focus will be the search for drug trafficking, smuggling of humans, weapons and counterfeit goods and fishery transgressions. The Department of Home Affairs tightened its borders to prevent human trafficking and said that it would make sure that "no illegals, particularly human traffickers, enter the country through out ports". Charities such as World Vision are calling for the "human trafficking to be red-carded by all during the World Cup and beyond".

Virtually every country in the world is affected by trafficking for sexual exploitation or forced labour, and in 2000 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Protocol to prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, marking a significant milestone in international efforts to stop the trade in people.  

British authorities are now working to prevent trafficking in the run up to the Games. Harriet Harman in her speech to the Labour Party conference 2009, warned that the Government will also be stepping up preventive measures against human trafficking in the run-up to the 2012 Games. The Home Office action plan includes training immigration teams at ports, creating a national victim-support system and setting up a child trafficking telephone advice line.  Vivienne Hayes, Director of the Women’s Resource Centre,  points out that the Convention on the Elimination of all form of discrimination Against Women, CEDAW states that “trafficked women and girls should be eligible for indefinite leave to remain and have access to appropriate, women-only services provided by women’s organisations.”  For 'moral reasons' freed victims of trafficking will now be allowed to stay in Britain temporarily in line with EU Protocols.  Ministers had previously refused to join the EU agreement because there were fears that it could be abused by illegal immigrants.

Ceri Goddard, of the Fawcett Society, says "countries who host the Olympics are rightly expected to demonstrate exemplary human rights standards and the UK is no exception. Trafficking women is an abuse of their human rights and Governments have a duty to take robust action to stop this practice.  Increasing sport tourism shouldn't mean turning a blind eye or even worse encouraging sex tourism that degrades and belittles the trafficked women involved".

In a briefing paper for the 2010 Olympics the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) warned that "campaigns can have very harmful effects on the very people they aim to protect” and stress the importance of using "accurate evidence in order to act proportionally and appropriately to the problem.” Anti-trafficking campaigns need to be very carefully planned and implemented. There is a tendency to treat prostitution and trafficking as though they were synonymous, and interventions can sometimes turn into 'law and order' drivesPolice mount “rescue raids” ostensibly to protect migrant women from exploitation. “These type of rescue raids are increasingly being used to stop trafficking in persons. However, reports from many countries around the world, including Cambodia, the Philippines and the USA, reveal that these raids can lead to further human rights violations of migrants, sex workers and trafficked people, aggressively targeting brothels and harassing sex workers in general, and deporting and detention of migrants without proper investigation.” For example, although prostitution is legal Germany, police raided 71 brothels during the 2006 World Cup. They did not discover any trafficked women, but 10 women were deported.

It is important that the authorities work with groups that may be affected by these campaigns, such as sex workers and migrant workers in informal sectors. Sara Walker of the English Collective of Prostitutes, says “of course, where men gather with time and money then prostitutes will go there. We are concerned about the police coming in and targeting prostitutes who are not illegal immigrants.”

Sufficient funding - particularly of grassroots groups - will be critical to the success of the British government's attempt to limit human trafficking around the Olympics. Services providers such as refuges and advice centres for women report that they are constantly underfunded. Ruth Breslin from Eaves, an organization which supports trafficked women through the Poppy Project, says that their accommodation and outreach services are constantly overstretched, "We are already operating at or near capacity. We would struggle to cope with increases in demand for services expected as a result of the 2012 Olympics without extra resources to meet the need.....women who have been trafficked are traumatised by their experiences. They need time and support to keep them safe and rebuild their shattered lives”. 

From 1 April this year, legislation in the has placed a new onus on men who use the services of sex workers, making it a crime to pay for sexual services from women who have been forced into prostitution. Breslin advocates educating men who attend the games to make them aware that having sex with trafficked women is a now a criminal offence..

In preparation for 2012 Britain must learn valuable lessons from experience at previous Games, including using an evidence-based approach for adopting anti-trafficking measures; discussing ways to increase safety with sex workers; and ensuring that anti-trafficking campaigns are developed with input from affected communities, trafficked persons, migrant workers and labour unions.







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