17 Days: Rio 2016 and the Trade in Human Misery Part 1

by Angelina Kaneva

International Women's Initiative News Writer

(Photo Credit)

Every time there is a large global sporting event such as the Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup or the Super Bowl, the multibillion-dollar business of human trafficking flourishes. And if the number of visitors to this year’s Summer Olympic Games in Brazil reaches numbers similar to those of the 2014 World Cup, over a million people will head to Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of August. All this raises serious concerns that the Games will turn into a magnet for human trafficking for sexual exploitation.


Major sporting events and sex trafficking

Major sporting events confer a range of advantages and disadvantages on the host countries. Although hosting them can be a huge financial gamble, these events can bring many direct, short-term economic, social and cultural benefits. For instance, the media exposure allow the host nation, and host city in particular, to improve its image in the global marketplace, showcasing the country to attract foreign investments and trade opportunities. It can also act as a stimulus for business growth, urban regeneration, and tourism, all of which boost the local and national economies.

However, there is a darker side to the story. The large influx of tourists can also, directly or indirectly, have an effect on illicit activities. For instance, while human trafficking spans time and space, those who study the problem have raised concerns that the influx of tens of thousands of visitors for large international sporting events contributes to heightened demand for sexual services. The “dirty downside” of big sporting events, together with worker abuse, corruption and fraud, can often be underestimated or overlooked as a result of the media hype leading up to the games and the focus on the athletes’ stories and the host city’s cultural offerings.

Underlying the limited attention to human trafficking in the context of sporting events is its largely clandestine nature. Since human trafficking figures are mostly approximations, with many cases going unreported, it is challenging to quantify the extent of the problem. One might then ask whether, despite increased concerns around big sporting events, the number of cases of human trafficking actually increases during sporting events, or whether better security measures during these events simply lead police to crack down on more cases than usual, thus distorting sporting events’ contribution to the problem. This question can only be answered by looking at the problem during previous sporting events.


FIFA World Cup 2014

According to the US Department of State Annual Trafficking in Persons report for 2016, Brazil continues to be a significant source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Brazilian women and children living within the country are primarily exploited for sex trafficking, and federal police report higher rates of children exploited in prostitution in the north and northeast regions. While a number of different forms of trafficking exist, sex trafficking is the most prevalent when it comes to sporting events.

The vast majority of the more than 3.16 million spectators at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil were foreign tourists. Addressing the link between sexual exploitation, tourism and sporting events, Michelle Lillie, who works for Human Trafficking Search/OLP Foundation, states that “the common adage applies – where there is tourism, there is also sex tourism,” explaining that since the majority of traffickers follow the principle of supply and demand, they usually target large crowds of tourists who are looking to pay for sex.

Furthermore, supporting the link between sporting events and trafficking, Lillie observed that girls from impoverished areas in Brazil began to go missing in the year prior to the World Cup. In fact, as Keshar Patel from the World Policy Institute has observed, the numbers were so high that the Brazilian authorities later stated that they had lost count. According to reports, many of the young women were kidnapped from Brazil’s slums by sex traffickers and taken to the World Cup sites where they were forced to service construction workers building the soccer stadiums. Michelle Lillie writes:

The young women and girls would live nearby in the local shanty-towns or hourly hotels and once the FIFA World Cup began they would walk the streets around the soccer stadium offering themselves to customers for several times the amount they charged the construction workers. Sex trafficking at the World Cup began long before the tournament even started and will unfortunately continue long after the FIFA World Cup has ended.

Unfortunately, there are no official government statistics on the number of sex trafficking cases prior to and following FIFA World Cup 2014. There could be a few reasons for this. First, an important distinction should be made between human sex trafficking and sex work, the latter being the sale of sex between two consenting adults as opposed to coerced prostitution. It is important to note that while sex work is legal in Brazil, sex trafficking is, and always has been, illegal and always involves coercion. However, authorities are often unable to distinguish between victims of sex trafficking and voluntary sex workers. Even when it comes to voluntary sex workers, many of them are children below the legal age of consent for Brazil, which is 14.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs reports that in the entire Western Hemisphere, only the US and Peru have more than 50 convictions for human trafficking per year. However, it also notes that there is "a large discrepancy between the number of police investigations, prosecution and actual conviction in the region." In spite of this apparent gap, the Brazilian government has made several efforts in recent years to combat human trafficking. For instance, in 2013 they announced their second national plan against human trafficking leading up to Rio 2016, which entails increased border control, revision of the penal code, government-funded campaigns to raise awareness, and the creation of service centers throughout the country to offer victims psychological and financial assistance.

Nevertheless, the US Trafficking in Persons report has noted that the government of Brazil does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Brazilian law defines human trafficking as a movement-based crime, and statutes prohibiting trafficking do not align with international standards that define it as the act of recruitment and transfer of human beings for exploitation. Thus, Articles 231 and 231-A of Brazil’s criminal code do not cover internal sex trafficking crimes such as the sexual exploitation of women and children inside the country, and they are prosecuted as other crimes due to the absence of movement as an essential element of the legal definition of trafficking.

This, in combination with the decentralized data collection on prosecutions, convictions, and sentences, significantly inhibits government coordination, thus making it more difficult to accurately assess government efforts. As a result, if convicted, sex traffickers in Brazil receive sentences ranging from one year to eight years and ten months’ imprisonment, which are more often than not served under house arrest or by only spending nights in prison and remaining free during the day.


What should Brazil do to deal with sex trafficking?

With or without official statistics to verify the increase in sex trafficking cases during major sporting events, there is little doubt that the upcoming Olympic Games will boost local demand for sex work, which will inevitably prompt traffickers to seek ways to profit from the event.

Although a number of NGOs conduct awareness campaigns and other activities aimed at combating sexual exploitation during high-profile sporting events, it is crucial that the government of Brazil also strengthens its efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses, as well as convict and sentence traffickers, including those engaged in trafficking that does not cross international borders. Judicial processes for holding traffickers accountable must be improved through more committed efforts between the judiciary and the federal prosecutor’s office. Finally, it is imperative that Brazil amends its legislation and mirror the definition of trafficking in accordance with international human rights law.

As an organization dedicated to raising awareness on the forms of human trafficking that disproportionately affect women and girls and the methods of recruitment through our program The Human Project, IWI will continue to follow the situation in Rio closely and report any developments on this issue.