Soccer With a Side of Slavery

By Katherine Chon and Derek Ellerman
Saturday, June 10, 2006

"It is truly scandalous. People are talking about women, importing them to satisfy the base instincts of people associated with football. It is humiliating enough for me that football is linked with alcohol and violence. But this is worse. It is slaves that will come and be put into houses. Human beings are being talked about like cattle, and football is linked with that."

-- Raymond Domenech, coach of the French World Cup soccer team

As the 2006 World Cup games get underway in Germany, tourists and soccer fans are being joined at the various competition venues by denizens of an international world of crime where human beings are bought and sold for profit.

Human trafficking is the third-largest criminal industry in the world, after arms and drugs. While soccer fans anticipate the excitement of the games, many of us in the anti-trafficking movement are deeply troubled by the expected surge of sex trafficking in Germany to meet the demand for commercial sex associated with the World Cup. It is estimated that more than 40,000 women and children will be imported to Germany during the month-long competition to provide commercial sex in the "mega-brothels," "quickie shacks," other legalized venues and vast underground networks that exist in Germany.

The traffickers and those who benefit from sex trafficking promote an image of women freely choosing to be involved in prostitution, making huge amounts of money at it and in general having a great time. It is the "Pretty Woman" myth, which many apparently like to believe in order to justify their inaction or ignorance on the issue.

But as our organization, Polaris Project, and many others like it that work every day with people in the sex industry know, this image does not reflect the reality on the streets and in the brothels for a majority of women and children.

In fact this is a world where violence and psychological abuse by the pimps, traffickers and customers are nearly ubiquitous. Research has shown that those who are prostituted face a 62 percent chance of being raped or gang-raped, a 73 percent chance of being physically assaulted, and a chance of dying that is 40 times greater than that of the average person in their age group. There is nothing "pretty" about the sex industry for the majority of people it victimizes.

From our experience as service providers for victims of trafficking, we know that large sporting events, conventions and other such gatherings are closely tied to a spike in demand for commercial sex and, in turn, for sex trafficking. Behind the trophies and cheers is the hidden suffering of women and children who bear the brunt of violence and abuse resulting from the rise in demand. Because of the link between demand and sex trafficking, we are troubled to see that the State Department gave Germany a Tier 1 compliance ranking in its annual Trafficking in Persons report released earlier this week, despite the German government's failure to address this problem.

Exacerbating all of the factors described above are the legalization of pimping and of the buying of commercial sex. The traffickers support legalization because they know that "regulation" has, in practice, meant a thin layer of regulated commercial sex businesses that have opted into the system, resting on top of a far larger group of illegal operations. The underground dealers have correctly calculated that greater profits can be generated through not paying taxes, ignoring basic safety standards for women and engaging in trafficking of children. Without a commensurately large, and politically unrealistic, apparatus to meaningfully monitor and police the thousands of underground operations, the increase in demand under a legalized system dramatically drives the expansion of this sector of sex trafficking. Unlike the success seen in countries such as Sweden, with its policies that decriminalize prostituted women and children but criminalize the buyers and controllers, failure has been the hallmark of the social experiment of full legalization.

The modern-day slave trade is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. There should be no country that is uncertain in its opposition to all the things that facilitate this egregious crime. Those who fail to act will surely face international condemnation now, and the judgment of history in the future. A time will come when they will be asked, "Where did you stand? What did you do?" We hope that the German government, soccer fans and governments and people everywhere, will be able to answer in sound conscience: We stood with the oppressed, and did everything in our power to stop these abuses.

The writers are co-executive directors and co-founders of Polaris Project, a Washington-based agency combating human trafficking and modern-day slavery.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company