Stories of human trafficking are gut wrenching. The hopelessness. The poverty. The desire to escape somewhere, anywhere, other than where you are. And desperate times call for desperate measures, which leads people to trust anyone, believe anything, just for a chance at an out. Globalization, which has advanced hand in hand with modern capitalism, has offered the world a degree of interconnectedness unimaginable a century ago. You can Skype or Facetime from Boston to Beijing without any extra effort, you can sip the same Starbuck’s coffee in Stockholm while sitting on the same couches you would in Seattle, and you can get from Adelaide to Zurich and anywhere in between on an airplane at a moment’s notice. For many, these are the positive aspects of globalization. Unfortunately, people sometimes ignore the fact that to enjoy these “positives” there are certain prerequisites: you must own a computer or an iPhone to use the technology that facilitates global communication, you must have the disposable income to sip a coffee at Starbuck’s instead of at home, and you need to have the time (not to mention wealth) to afford an airplane ticket. In short, you need to have money and the truth is that not everyone has it. Globalization is built on the premise of enjoying things that require money; the flip side of this is that globalization can have devastating consequences for those on the outside looking in: those who are not wealthy.

Those who are not wealthy look to use the interconnectedness created by globalization to their advantage, at least as best that they can. Often times this comes in the form of economic migration (something that—as Brexit has shown—elicits a strong backlash) but other times this can come in other forms. Human trafficking is one of those other forms. Often it is a wealthy individual who offers a poorer individual a “way out” by using one of the channels of globalization: travel. The most publicized of this type of human trafficking comes in the form of sex trafficking. Poor regions in eastern Europe are especially vulnerable to it; in countries like Moldova—where the average income is less than 2,000 USD annually—sometimes all people have to sell is their body, whether for sex or for kidneys. Al Jazeera’s project on sex trafficking in Romania is particularly enlightening since it highlights not just the hopeless desperation many young girls feel, but also as the attitude of the traffickers themselves, who see themselves as helping the young girls by offering them a way out.

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The Poverty in Some Regions of Romania Can Be Unbearable. Image Courtesy Of: http://projects.aljazeera.com/2015/08/sex-trafficking-in-romania/index.html

 

It is true that sad stories like this exist around the world and not just in Eastern Europe, and one common thread of international human trafficking is that it affects a disproportionately large number of women. A 2014 European Union report cited by the BBC explains that in the three years leading up to 2013, 30,146 people were registered as victims of human trafficking across the bloc. 80 per cent of the victims were women, and 69 per cent were victims of “sexual exploitation”. The fact that, tellingly, only 8,551 people were prosecuted for human trafficking and that there were just 3,786 convictions—which is only around ten per cent of the number of victims—tells us that this is a global issue. While the high rates of female victimization are certainly alarming, I will bring in an example from the football world to show that human trafficking does not discriminate according to gender or race; it is a global problem in the globalized age.

Many living in global West during the modern era may believe that the slave trade is over. Africans are no longer being put on boats and shipped overseas to become slave labor driving Western agricultural production—that’s true. But Africans are certainly being put on airplanes (often by fellow Africans) and are flown to the West in order to—they hope—play a role in driving Western cultural production. This cultural production is the sport of football. Didier Drogba. George Weah. These are the African stars of world football that every young footballer hopes to emulate one day, escaping Africa for a footballing career in Europe. But for every one of them, there are hundreds of young men like Musa, emigrating from Nigeria to (in his case) Turkey for a chance at football greatness. Comparatively, Musa might be one of the lucky ones.

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Didier Drogba Is One In a Million; Not Everyone Gets A Chance To Shine Under The Lights Of European Nights. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/chelsea/11635116/Chelsea-transfer-news-and-rumours-Didier-Drogba-wanted-by-Marseille.html

 

A 2015 Al Jazeera piece explains that “up to 15,000 young African footballers are taken abroad annually under false hopes [of finding a team] – over a third of them head to Europe. Many end up stranded in Europe, Asia, North America or the Middle East as they cannot afford to return or are too ashamed to do so”. The figure of 15,000 annually sounds like a large number, considering the number of 30,146 registered as victims of human trafficking over three years, but we need to remember that many of these African footballers may not consider themselves to have been trafficked, since the process is based on deception. Sports Agent Aby Emenike explains that “fake agents usually manage to extort sums between $300 and $3,000 for processing paperwork, paying for travel expenses, passports and visas”. The players—all too often blinded by their desperation for an opportunity—do not question them.

A case presented on Futbolgrad shows how the process plays itself out in the politically and sportingly marginal area of post-Soviet central Asia. The story is Olawale Sunday’s, a Nigerian who—in 2014—found himself struggling to make a name for himself in football in one of the world’s unlikeliest destinations: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. By Mr. Sunday’s own admission, however, it is “a lot better than Dushanbe” (a city for which I have a soft spot, but nonetheless I understand Mr. Sunday). In 2013 the footballer left Nigeria after paying “USD$3350 to a rogue agent who had promised him a trial with an unnamed club in Russia”. The rest of the story, as related by David McArdle, is worth quoting at length:

Accompanied by a group of similar recruits, they [Sunday and other hopefuls] arrived in Dubai and were each given one-way tickets to Dushanbe, where they were then met by a Ghanaian merchant-of-sorts: ‘Charles [the Ghanaian] met us off the plane and told us we would play for Lokomotiv Dushanbe’, a side with little in common with their Muscovite namesake, Wale elaborates. The unusual composition of a Ghanaian in Tajikistan was never thoroughly explained although his role in assuring the young players upon reaching Dushanbe, with hindsight, reads crucial in the de facto abandoning process: ‘Charles married a Tajik girl so he is stuck there forever’, Wale reveals as if discussing a lengthy period of incarceration. ‘He uses players as slaves’, Wale pronounces suddenly.

The last sentence in Mr. Sunday’s testimony is key, the trafficked footballers are treated as slaves. While Mr. Sunday has since left for (slightly?) greener pastures (after an adventure with the kind of post-Soviet bureaucracy I have had experience with) in Kyrgyzstan, the fact remains that there are many others in still worse positions.

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Mr. Sunday Navigates Central Asia Off The Pitch. Image Courtesy of: http://futbolgrad.com/football-slave-naive-willing-migrant-selling-dreams-along-silk-road/#more

 

Playthegame.org tells a story that is not so different than that of the young Eastern European girls who have fallen victim to sex traffickers:

The trade of under-age African footballers is primarily a phenomenon that plays on distressed families’ hopes for a way out of poverty. The fake agents make unknowing parents spend all their savings on their son’s flight to Europe, but in the end, the boy might only get a single trial at a European club – or perhaps none at all – and is left on his own in an unknown world far away from family and without a safety net.

In Moldova, we see the same root cause: “All of these forms of human trafficking are running so incredibly rampant in Moldova primarily because of one thing. Poverty.”

Jean-Claude Mbouvin, founder and director of Foot Solidaire, an organization raising awareness of the trafficking of young African footballers, explains that “Today, there are fake football agents who only use football to make money. They make fake contracts, lure young African players to come to Europe under illegal conditions, and then they just leave them”. As Mr. Mbouvin reminds us, for the players “it is an opportunity for the young kids to get a chance to get out of poverty”.

Contrast this with the story of girls in Romania who fall victim to sex traffickers:

Most girls remain unaware of the real fate that awaits girls who follow the often familiar faces of men known as lover boys. The lover boy method is the technique most often used to recruit girls. A trafficker purports to fall in love with a vulnerable girl, offering romance, nice dinners, gifts and the promise of a fairy tale life far away. The lover boy then claims to fall on hard times and persuades the girl to sell herself just to help make ends meet for a short time. Once the girls are swayed into selling their bodies, manipulated into feeling obligated to repay the lovely meals and gifts, they are often too ashamed to return home, fearing they will no longer be accepted.

The African footballers fall victim to the trafficker’s ruse because of a love of football while the young Romanian girls fall victim to the trafficker’s ruse because of love itself. Both cases represent internal exploitations; Africans exploiting Africans on the one hand and Romanians exploiting Romanians on the other. In both cases bodies are being exploited; in one case it is in the name of sport and in the other it is in the name of sex. In both cases no one can go back; they will both be shamed by their respective communities due to their perceived “failures”. And both root causes are the same: A hopeless despair caused by extreme poverty.

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Some Are Trafficked To Perform On The Pitch…                                                                                                             Image Courtesy Of: http://futbolgrad.com/football-slave-naive-willing-migrant-selling-dreams-along-silk-road/#more

 

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And Some Are Trafficked to Perform In The Clubs…But It’s The Same Sad Result.                                              Image Courtesy Of: http://projects.aljazeera.com/2015/08/sex-trafficking-in-romania/index.html

 

These two cases—although seemingly unrelated—actually represent two sides of the same coin. Human trafficking is not just an issue that females face; men face this evil as well but in different forms. The debate surrounding human trafficking, therefore, represents yet another one where divisions—in this case along the lines of gender—should not be created. Such divisions cannot help us solve the root cause of poverty which, after all, knows no race or gender. Unfortunately, it is a by-product of the modern society, simultaneously connected and disconnected, that we live in today.

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