Human Trafficking And Globalization: Not Just a Girl Problem, but a Global Problem in Football Too

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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



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.

Knoxville and Eastern Europe

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One of the true joys I get out of travel is being able to connect the places I visit to one another. For many the Southern United States and Eastern Europe might as well be on different planets. And that’s ok—they are, after all, on opposite sides of this all-too-large world we live in. As if that were not enough, I also acknowledge that Knoxville, Tennessee specifically may not sound as exotic as Tallinn, Estonia or Sofia, Bulgaria or anywhere in between, for that matter.  But I hope to bridge that gap if only for a few minutes.

On Sunday morning I went for a walk in downtown Knoxville for a few hours. I wandered through the perfect tourist spot that is Market Square—complete with a Cormac McCarthy quote embedded in the granite—and purchased some suitably “southern” University of Tennessee gear (a substitute for a soccer jersey) at the Mast General Store, before heading towards the campus.

While aimlessly wandering down Cumberland Ave (I didn’t care that those driving by may have thought I was on a walk of shame) I found myself in World’s Fair Park. Despite the cold temperature I felt strangely at home in the park, and when I came upon the statue of Sergei Rachmaninoff (who played his last concert seventy-one years ago at the University of Tennessee, by the way) I realized why. It felt like I was squarely in Eastern Europe. Forget the beautiful campus that screams “America” just meters away, forget the discarded red solo cups and cans of Natural Ice that dotted the sidewalks; just focus on the statue—built by Victor Bokarov of Russia—and the puddles that have formed at its base, the rail road tracks and the Sunsphere rising into the grey sky in the background. In this moment, standing in the mist, I could be nowhere but an Eastern European capital. And that is not—necessarily—a bad thing.

Underneath that cloudy sky I reflected on the places I have been and the places I will go, ultimately realizing that one does not need go to exotic locales to feel the thrill of travel within oneself. In fact, Tennessee and Eastern Europe are not really that far apart. Think, for a moment, of what the American South is—or was. Essentially, it was a resource rich periphery for the industrial north. It was mainly about control of the South’s agricultural land—not about slavery, despite what some historians may tell you—that the American Civil War was fought. And what was Eastern Europe? In addition to being a buffer to Western European expansion, it was also an agricultural breadbasket for the Soviet Union. So how far apart are Knoxville and Kiev, really?

The name University of Tennessee’s sports team—the Volunteers—can serve as an example. It comes from the fact that Tennessee provided an unprecedented number of volunteer soldiers to both the war of 1812 and the Mexican-American war (http://www.utk.edu/aboutut/traditions/). The university itself was also not immune to war, it once served as a hospital for Confederate troops during the US civil war (https://www.utk.edu/aboutut/history/). All just a few small things I learned in one drizzly early spring morning in Knoxville.


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Stadion Balgarska Armia/Stadium of the Bulgarian Army, Sofia, Bulgaria – PFC CSKA Sofia


The name of this stadium should come as no surprise since CSKA Sofia–like both CSKA Moscow and the former CSKA Kiev in Eastern Europe–was originally an army team. CSKA stands for “Central Sports Club of the Army”, even though the link died out with the end of the Cold War; the team maintains no such ties today.

Like other Eastern European grounds, the Balgarska Armia is located in the center of the leafy Borisva Gradina (King Boris’ Garden) in Central Sofia. The trees hide the stadium from immediate view, and one can while away more than a few pleasant hours in the shady paths of the park, watching lovers stroll and young men drinking beer on the many benches. Nearer to the stadium is a small sports cafe, where Bulgarians young and old engage in what seems to be one of their favorite leisure activities: Ping Pong. I myself watched them one afternoon munching on some friend sardines and washing it all down with cold Kamenitza beer. It is definitely a nice spot to get away from it all and just suck in the small moments of a day that we all too often tend to take for granted. I’ve found that Eastern European parks–and stadia–might be some of the most pleasant urban areas in the world.

Inside the stadium–at the time that I visited–were the marks of a less relaxed time, as many of the 22,015 seats had been ripped up in what I could only assume to be the result of crowd violence. Still, one cant help but feel sympathy for the old Balgarska Armia–it was built in 1923–due to the trees that encroach on the highest seats from all sides. For some pictures of my CSKA shirt, please see the link in the “Football Shirts” section.


You might have to sweet talk the guards for entrance to the ground, as I had to:


The player’s entrance feels like a Hollywood red carpet. Almost:


The trees look to reclaim what was once theirs:


Marks of a less relaxed time:


Nice shade in the upper decks of the Balgarska Armia:


Bring your dictionary for translating:


The author takes a lonely walk:

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Where the old glories lie: