The Rio Olympics are coming up this August, and everyone from your area volleyball champion to Jamaican sprinting superstar Usain Bolt is looking forward to the event. They certainly have reason to. Not only are the Olympics one of the biggest sporting events, but Rio de Janeiro is also Brazil’s most iconic city, boasting some of the world’s best nightlife and beaches.
Yet Rio’s renown is perhaps only rivaled by its more notorious reputation as a teeming hotspot of criminal activity. One factor of particular concern is human trafficking. Numerous media reports have connected modern-day slavery, and sex trafficking in particular, to massive sporting events such as the Super Bowl or the FIFA World Cup.
The reasoning behind such a link seems clear. When millions of foreign visitors flood an area, they vastly increase the demand for sex work, an occupation that is rife with human trafficking. However, the issue is more complex than it first seems.
The Link Between Human Trafficking and Sporting Events Is Exaggerated
Thanks to the media, there is a popular misconception that large sporting events are directly linked to increases in human trafficking. For example, before the 2014 Super Bowl, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott declared the event the “largest human trafficking event in the country.”
There are also numerous statistics out there purporting to tie trafficking to sports events. For example, during the FIFA World Cup in 2006 in Germany, the media reported an estimated 40,000 women would be trafficked for sex purposes due to the influx of visitors. The figure for the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 was similar.
However, both figures were completely unsubstantiated, and in the end, only 11 trafficking cases in South Africa and 5 in Germany were directly linked to the World Cup. Various stakeholders have an interest in reporting such large numbers.
Not only does the media gain millions of clicks with such sensationalist stories, but non-government organizations looking to raise funds to combat human trafficking also benefit from increased exposure. In the end, there is no confirmed, empirical evidence that events like the Olympics are tied to increases in human trafficking.
Yet Human Trafficking Is Rife in Brazil
According to the State Department, Brazil is a “large source and destination” for forced labor and sex trafficking, with an estimated 200,000 people toiling in slave-like conditions. The country’s status as a tourism and nightlife hotspot has made it very vulnerable to sex tourism, while forced labor from poorer countries like Haiti, Peru, and others are often found in industries like construction and agriculture.
Sex work and construction, of course, are two sectors that would be affected by the Olympics. Some $9.8 billion has been spent already on the event, mostly on construction, while over half a million tourists are expected to come in just for the event. Yet authorities have been slow to react to human trafficking.
It took 15 years for tougher legislation regarding forced labor to be passed in 2012, for example, and Brazil’s justice system is riddled with corruption. Still, some progress has been made. Reported instances of trafficking increased massively in 2013, largely thanks to government publicity campaigns and a new anti-trafficking hotline.
The Games May Increase Human Trafficking for Unexpected Reasons
Based on past experience, we know actual human trafficking cases are unlikely to spike during the Rio Olympics. But in the long run, the Olympics could create a source of vulnerable people for traffickers to prey on.
Over 22,000 families have been evicted and resettled since 2009 partly due to Olympics-related infrastructure projects. Such cases harken back to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which was also in Brazil and threw thousands into homelessness and poverty, particularly children. Studies show growing up under such conditions makes youth highly vulnerable to human trafficking, which is already a huge problem in Brazil.
Meanwhile, there is anecdotal evidence human traffickers could use sporting events like the Olympics as bait to attract women into the country. Consider the case of one newscaster, who almost took a flight to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2012 after accepting a media gig there before realizing the job didn’t actually exist.
Fears the Games Could Spark Other Sorts of Crime
There have been reports on the ground that violence in Rio’s infamous slums — which are known as favelas and home to a fifth of the city’s population — has been spiking leading up to the World Cup. One American reporter was even stopped at a homemade roadblock as he was being driven while a young man yelled “shoot them in the head!”
Ironically enough, however, analysts don’t think the crime will affect visitors to the Olympics. Brazilian police have massively ramped up their operations to guard tourists along with cracking down on crime prior to the event. The Olympics may instead cause a small wave of crime against Rio’s poor population due to the police being redeployed to guard tourists at Olympic venues.
What You Can Do
There are no one-fits-all solutions to combat human trafficking. If you are going to the Games, consider donating to a local and respected charity that supports groups vulnerable to trafficking such as street children. Terra dos Homens is one but there are many others.
When it comes to your own safety, always stay aware. Don’t take any last-minute job opportunities without thoroughly vetting your prospective employer. It’s worth keeping in mind that the Rio Olympics will be over almost as soon as they started, while human trafficking has no end in sight. So try to keep up the good fight regardless of the Olympics themselves.
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