News / 21 February, 2011

Olympics sex trafficking debate highlights media misinformation

There is little consensus about the impact the London 2012 Games will have on this illegal trade, say experts

Concerns have been raised about a possible increase in sex trafficking in the run-up to the Olympic Games, but the debate at a recent conference on the issue suggests that the picture is not as straightforward as is sometimes portrayed.

Fears about the trafficking of prostitutes to the Olympic boroughs are based on reports from large-scale sporting events in other countries, such as the World Cups in Germany and South Africa. At the conference on ‘(How) Will the 2012 Olympics Impact Trafficking in London’, hosted by Young Professionals in Human Rights on Tuesday 15 February, experts disagreed on whether this will happen in London, and on how important this issue is compared to others such as the trafficking of workers.

Speaking at the conference, Gemma Wolfes of Anti-Slavery International said there is little reliable research available that examines possible links between sex trafficking and Olympics. The claim that 40,000 people were trafficked into Germany for the World Cup has been widely reported in the media, yet it seems no-one knows where this figure comes from. Meanwhile, the issue of forced labour receives much less media attention, although with the increase in demand for workers in construction and hospitality, areas in which exploitation is known to be a problem, this is seen as a real risk.

“We should listen to the people involved,” argued Dr Nick Mai, a migration expert from London Metropolitan University. His research found that approximately 13% of female interviewees felt that they had been subject to different perceptions and experiences of exploitation, ranging from extreme cases of trafficking to relatively more consensual arrangements.

Only a minority, amounting approximately to 6 per cent of female interviewees, felt that they had been deceived and forced into selling sex in circumstances within which they had no share of control or consent. Heartbreaking stories of young girls tricked and forced into prostitution are true, “but they are not the only truth,” he said. He suggested that there is a tendency to oversimplify the situation, both on the part of the media, which prefers a simple story, and charities, who wish to avoid cuts to their funding.

Sex worker rights activist and representative of the Sex Worker Open University, Luca Raven, was similarly critical of the way the issue has been represented in the media, arguing that many of the reported figures are simply recycled from ‘research’ that has been debunked by academics. He also took the view that “most sex workers are there by choice”, and said that he wanted sex workers to be included in the debate around human trafficking.

Earlier this month (9 February) the government was criticised by health experts and MPs at a conference focusing on trafficking issues. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper condemned the government’s decision not to sign up to the EU Directive on Human Trafficking to combat the trade in sex slaves.

Note: this article was amended at 5.20pm Friday 25 February 2011 to correct the figure quoted regarding Dr Nick Mai’s research (from 15% to 13%).

/ 21 February, 2011