Views from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Uncovering the myths and evidence around Olympics and trafficking

Misguided fear that sex trafficking will increase during the London Olympics could leave vulnerable women without access to health services and at risk of harm, according to experts who gathered at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine for a debate on the issue.

Similar concerns were expressed before the World Cup in Germany and South Africa, the Olympics in Athens and Vancouver, and the US Super Bowl but recent research demonstrates that anti-trafficking measures put into place in a range of countries have proved disproportionate, unnecessary or harmful in cases where sex workers become increasingly criminalised and unable to access health and social programmes.

Yet despite this evidence – collected from police authorities, the International Organization for Migration and services working with sex workers – clampdowns and extra measures to tackle the perceived influx are already under way in London and the experts warned this could push women on to the streets or away from their existing support networks and NHS outreach schemes.

The many myths and evidence around the issue were discussed in a packed John Snow Lecture Theatre on Wednesday 25 January.

Speakers included Joanna Busza, Senior Lecturer in Sexual & Reproductive Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; Julie Ham, of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women and author of What’s the cost of a rumour?, Marlise Richter, International Centre for Reproductive Health, Ghent; Nivedita Prasad, Ban Ying Counseling and Coordination Center against Trafficking, Berlin; Catherine Stephens, International Union of Sex Workers, London; and Georgina Perry, Open Doors, NHS Service for Newham, Hackney & Tower Hamlets.

Julie Ham’s report highlights the following:

• 2010 World Cup in South Africa: the South African Dept of Justice & Constitutional Development reported that they did not find a single case of trafficking over the Olympics time period.

• 2010 Olympics in Canada – no evidence of trafficking and sex workers anecdotally reported a fall in business.

• 2006 World Cup, Germany – During the World Cup, 33 cases were referred to the police for further investigation, out of which 5 cases were confirmed to be trafficking (4 women and 1 man). No other cases were found, despite the fact that the police conducted 71 brothel raids (these raids did not identify the 5 confirmed trafficking cases, but did lead to 10 deportations).

• 2004 Olympics in Greece – When trafficking statistics were compared for all of 2004 with all of 2003, there was an increase of 181 trafficking cases (which is a 90% increase). However, according to both the police and the International Organization for Migration, none of these cases were linked to the Olympics.

• Super Bowls in the USA in 2008, 2009, 2011 – Although law enforcement increased, they made no additional arrests for sex work-related offences during this time.

Joanna Busza says: “There is no reason to think the UK will have a very different experience, and we should learn from the experiences of other cities. In the meantime, however, discussion of trafficking is distracting attention and resources from ensuring good quality services are in place and able to access vulnerable sex workers. Outreach programmes and specialised health services are evidence-based, and associated with improved health. Police crackdowns and brothel closures tend to displace sex workers from flats and saunas to less safe work venues, including the street, and make them wary of all authorities so they are less likely to access services or to report episodes of violence or crime to the police.”

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