Debunking human trafficking: Exploitation in sport

Debunking human trafficking: Exploitation in sport

Sport is a powerful force that can bring people together in solidarity and celebration. This image of spirit and unity is one that is conjured during major sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics. There is, however, a dark side to the world of sport, in which young athletes from developing countries are exposed to human trafficking threats.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that in 2016 there were more than 40 million victims of different forms of human trafficking globally, with a quarter of those victims being children. Human trafficking, also known as modern slavery, is a $150 billion criminal industry, second only to drugs. It is an issue endemic to all countries and communities, which is why it is so important to understand the ways in which it can work and how it is recognised.

Understanding the scale of the issue in sport is notoriously difficult for two key reasons. Firstly it is difficult to detect cases of human trafficking. One of the biggest challenges in developing anti-trafficking measures is the lack of reliable data which could shed light on the size of the problem and the help identify common migration channels, victims and trafficker profiles. The second problem is the way human trafficking is defined and perceived by people globally. Our perception of what human trafficking looks like is too specific. The term” human trafficking” conjures up images of young women forced into prostitution and child soldiers. These images are rightly disturbing, but it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on the breadth of activities that fall under the umbrella term of “human trafficking” and not limit ourselves to one definition.

he terms and conditions of human trafficking


According to the OHCHR, human trafficking is defined 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”.
It is also defined as comprising of three elements: act, means and purpose. Any combination of these elements suggests that human trafficking is taking place.
Crucially, trafficking does not always include the movement of people, and so institutions that deal in the receipt or recruitment of people for exploitative purposes are equally a part of trafficking processes.

A common myth about human trafficking is that, as a criminal movement, it involves totally illegal activities. But human trafficking actually involves a lot of legitimate services, including banking, transport, hotels and social media. According to non-profit organisation Polaris, human traffickers most commonly act by exploiting well-established legitimate systems across multiple sectors for their own profit. A better understanding of how legitimate services are used to facilitate trafficking practices can help us identify the issue, but it requires a collaborative response across sectors. The insidious nature of this crime has a considerable impact on the world sports, in which traffickers can operate under the guise of recruiting and training hopeful young athletes.

Exploitation in sport

The idea that young people willingly dream of pursuing a career in sport can make the issue of human trafficking more difficult to detect. It can be quite difficult to think about the issue of exploitation in sport in terms of human trafficking because, when considering the UN definition, we have to determine the extent to which the purpose is exploitation. We already have an implicit understanding of how sex trafficking and forced labour work, and we need the same conceptual awareness in sport. The issue of trafficking in sport is also more complex because there is a voluntary aspect. They are not necessarily forced migrants, fleeing from an immediate conflict or threat, and they also have a skill to offer and be rewarded for, so there is an element of agency to consider. However we must bear in mind that difficult truth: that young people from Africa may start out in voluntarily pursuit of a career in European football, for example, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t exploited along the way or on arrival.

Typically, the process beings when someone claiming to be an agent contacts a young player and persuades them to leave their home to pursue their lifelong dream in Europe. Legal channels such as short-term tourist visas are used to enter Europe. Once there, the youth hands over their money to the sham agent, who leaves them with no money, connections or resources. The pressure to provide for themselves and their families back home is a huge driver for young people from developing countries, and it is this pressure which will usually keep them in Europe looking for work; the problem is once their short-term visa expires, they are in Europe illegally.

With the development of women’s football in recent decades, it is not just young African boys who participate in the football migration channel to Europe. Now many professional women’s leagues exist in Europe and the United States. In cases where participation in sport is still not seen as appropriate for women, the opportunity to pursue that dream in Europe is a key driver for migration.

Organisations like FIFA cannot ultimately prevent fraudulent individuals selling young athletes a dream that’s built on a lie. That requires more than football organisations can provide, which is a solution to common structural issues around inequality. It requires a multi-agency approach, with border agencies, guardians, transport companies, agents and sport associations all working together to mitigate risk and ensure the safety of young athletes. Unfortunately, for the moment, this level of multi-agency cooperation doesn’t exist. Sport has become yet another cover under which traffickers operate, but many people are still ignorant of how common it can be. Many sports are a target for potential corruption, migration in sport provide traffickers with conditions ripe for corrupt practices. To protect the players we need more people raising awareness of the issue, arguing for measures to be taken that will protect young people from exploitation.

As consumers of sport we need to ask ourselves questions. Understanding the trafficking of minors in sport is not about playing the ‘blame game’, but about understanding our role in the industry, as player, club, organisation or consumer and how we can mitigate risk to prevent a supply chain of exploitation.

With October 18th marking anti-trafficking day in the EU, you can take part in preventing human trafficking by educating yourself, accessing resources on our website and using this knowledge to be proactive in protecting potential victims.



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