A Stage for Human Trafficking: The World Cup in Russia

All eyes turn to Russia this month as it hosts the FIFA World Cup, a month-long tournament of football (soccer, to Americans) on the world’s most prominent stage. However, this World Cup lacks something other World Cup tournaments over the last two decades have had – a countrywide anti-trafficking campaign. Although human trafficking happens every day and is not limited to major sporting events, the World Cup tournaments in Brazil, South Africa, and Germany all mounted comprehensive anti-trafficking campaigns aimed at educating football fans about the impact of human trafficking and the World Cup. Why is there no such campaign in Russia?

Human trafficking incidents and busts are on the rise during major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, Olympics, and World Cup, which facilitate demand for sexual and other services. While most countries and host cities wage aggressive anti-trafficking awareness and policing campaigns, such campaigns are notably absent from Russian’s hosting of the World Cup, with the exception of recently reported harassment of prostitutes on the Leningradskoye Highway. This is because the country sees trafficking as a political issue and does not make combating it a priority in government legislation or law enforcement efforts.

This lack of government commitment to combating human trafficking, combined with eased visa requirements, an estimated influx of a million football fans, and Russia’s nascent anti-trafficking laws and services for victims, makes the World Cup tournament there a recipe for human trafficking.

The World Cup and Anti-Trafficking Campaigns

There were significant outreach campaigns to prevent human trafficking ahead of previous World Cup tournaments in Brazil in 2014, in South Africa in 2010, and in Germany in 2006, but we have seen nothing similar from the Russian government.

The Brazilian government in 2014 ran the “Happy being a prostitute" campaign, which was aimed at encouraging prostitutes to use condoms and get medical attention, since prostitution is legal in Brazil. While this campaign was not explicitly aimed at human trafficking and was abandoned soon after it was adopted for its pro-sex-work undertones, at least the government did something to try to curb the exploitation of a vulnerable social group.

Campaigns to curb trafficking were also mounted by religious groups and other local organizations combating sex tourism. The high-profile “Red Card” campaign, organized by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women–Latin America and the Caribbean, featured a card like the one given out for serious player infractions during a game. The cards were distributed to travelers on flights to Brazil, and Brazil’s president tweeted out some content from the campaign, but no new policies or legislation against trafficking resulted.

Anti-trafficking campaigns in South Africa around the games were also prevalent and adopted the red card theme as well. For the 2010 World Cup, the South African government developed and implemented measures to prevent and reduce the possible exploitation and trafficking of children and strengthened the child protection system at the official FIFA Fan Fests, visited by some 3.3 million people. International organizations such as UNICEF were involved in distributing information about the exploitation of children, and local organizations such as Justice [ACTS], a Cape Town anti-trafficking group, worked with organizations to formulate public service announcements and outreach campaigns. Police also stepped up brothel checks and investigations into human trafficking syndicates because the number of brothels had doubled in the year before the World Cup.

In Germany, human trafficking policing strategies and awareness campaigns before the 2006 World Cup dramatically reduced the number of trafficking victims. Public service announcements sponsored by the International Organization for Migration and MTV-Europe directed people to a special website that was created for anonymous reporting of human trafficking.  

While no campaign, whether sponsored by governments or by local organizations, can stop the human trafficking that goes on around sporting events, such efforts draw the attention of society and the world to the problem. It is important for Russia to continue this conversation during the World Cup.

Prevalence of Trafficking in Russia

Russia is ranked the sixteenth in prevalence of human trafficking among all countries, with more than a million people estimated to be living in slavery in Russia today. It is a destination country for migrant labor from Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, making it second in the world for migration. Traffickers capitalize on economies of scale, and the monetary profits to be realized from the World Cup fans will be significant.

Although reports of trafficking of laborers to construct the football arenas made the news in Russia for the Olympics and World Cup, the media have been mostly silent on sex trafficking connected to the World Cup. Nigerian officials have uncovered plans to traffic Nigerian women into Russia and foiled another plot to traffic Nigerian children for the World Cup; such trafficking has been simplified by Russia’s waiving its usually strict visa regime and allowing in visitors holding a FIFA fan pass and traveling on a one-way ticket. Recently, media outlets have suggested that the World Cup will spark a mini-boom in prostitution and sex trafficking in the eleven different World Cup host cities across Russia.

The lax trafficking laws with minimal implementation from the police mean that traffickers can operate with impunity within the Russian Federation. The Russian government does not view human trafficking as a priority, so there have been no government-sponsored campaigns aimed at eradicating trafficking in advance of the World Cup, as there were in other host countries. However, this was not always the case. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian government did focus on the problem, and numerous attempts were made to adopt a human trafficking law. After several international conferences and drafts of different legislation in the Duma, two criminal code amendments were adopted that made trafficking illegal. Though the international community had pushed for a more comprehensive law, the Russian government took its own approach to legislating human trafficking within the country’s borders.

Then, in 2013, Russia was assigned a Tier 3 ranking in the U.S. government’s Trafficking in Persons rankings, the lowest grade possible, which made it ineligible to receive non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance, and the controversy over human trafficking escalated. After that, the Russian government refused to provide data on trafficking arrests and victim rehabilitation for the report, and the issue became an unwelcome subject in Russian politics. The situation worsened with the clampdown on civil society’s anti-trafficking efforts by way of the Foreign Agent Law of 2012, which shuttered most of the local anti-trafficking agencies or forced them to move on to less controversial topics. Though international organizations still operate in Russia, trafficking has become such a politicized issue that they are refraining from mounting high-visibility nationwide awareness campaigns during the World Cup as they had during previous tournaments.

Though more needs to be done to combat human trafficking in Russia, and not just during the World Cup, the games offer an excellent opportunity for education and awareness on this issue. While many humanitarian issues are not deemed worthy of Russian government attention, trafficking is linked to illegal migration, terrorism, and the exploitation of children, topics in which the government has shown significant interest. Consequently, it should be in the Russian government’s self-interest to increase awareness and provide victim services before the issue becomes unwieldy.

FIFA also could do more to ensure that host countries are taking a strong stand against trafficking. FIFA should require host cities to showcase extensive awareness campaigns educating football fans about human trafficking, and should work with local authorities and law enforcement to recognize both sex trafficking and labor trafficking in the construction of the football venues. These efforts are small for an organization with the global reach of FIFA but could go a long way toward protecting the human rights of those exploited in the name of football around the world today.