Commentary

Concerns raised about illegal sex trade

World Cup in South Africa heightens awareness about human trafficking

Updated: January 7, 2011, 3:51 PM ET
By John Barr and Nicole Noren | ESPN

Editor's note: For more than nine months, "Outside the Lines" has investigated whether the presence of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa will have an effect on human trafficking in the country. OTL interviewed dozens of sources in South Africa and around the world, including officials in law enforcement, government agencies, research institutes and advocacy groups, as well as pimps and prostitutes who will work the brothels and streets of South African cities that are hosting World Cup matches. The investigation included undercover footage, recorded from within the South African sex industry in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The reporting process led to multiple sources who said more young people have been trafficked either into South Africa from other countries or internally to work in a rapidly growing sex industry because of the monthlong soccer tournament.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- She agreed to meet at a safe house in Cape Town, her refuge since early February. Now 32, Jasmine (her name has been changed to protect her identity) has barely known a life outside prostitution. She said her mother, a former prostitute and drug addict, saw to that, selling Jasmine's virginity to a Japanese sailor when Jasmine was 12 or 13.

"She said she brought me into the world and she always supported me and paid for the bills and everything, and it's now my turn to give back," Jasmine said, recalling her mother's decision to sell her daughter's innocence. "It was just normal. It was just expected of me to do."

Jasmine
ESPN"Jasmine" is a victim of human trafficking in South Africa.

From that early age until May 2009, Jasmine worked on and off as a prostitute in South Africa, surviving what she described as the horrors that come with that life: rape, an addiction to crack cocaine and an abusive former boyfriend with whom she has a daughter.

For the past few years, Jasmine said, she has lived in fear of two German pimps who used a recruiter to lure her more than 200 miles from Cape Town to the Indian Ocean-coastal city of Mossel Bay. She said the men raped her, threatened her with beatings if she tried to escape, controlled her day-to-day movements and fined her if she left her small apartment without their permission.

Despite her most recent experience, Jasmine asked before an extensive interview with "Outside the Lines" whether she "fit the criteria" to be included in a story about the effect of the World Cup on human trafficking in South Africa.

"My perception of human trafficking was being chained to a bed, or like in a small little box, and being sent to another country, and I didn't think of it internally," she said.

According to anti-trafficking advocates, Jasmine's story is an example of what's happening with greater frequency all over South Africa as the World Cup approaches.

"That's classic human trafficking," said Tonya Stanfield, network director of Justice [ACTS], a Cape Town anti-trafficking group.

"She was told, 'You will be a sex worker, and you will be a prostitute,' but she wasn't told she was going to be a slave," Stanfield said when told of Jasmine's story.

Tonya Stanfield
ESPNTonya Stanfield speaks with ESPN reporter John Barr outside a Cape Town warehouse, where police rescued five teenage trafficking victims in late April.

Stanfield's organization distills the often murky practice of human trafficking down to four core elements. Trafficking victims, Stanfield said, are tricked, transported, trapped and traded.

Jasmine said she was working as a prostitute in Cape Town when a female acquaintance told her about an opportunity to make some quick money in Mossel Bay, about a six-hour bus ride from Cape Town. Jasmine said the woman told her that she would work for a German pimp and have her own apartment right on the beach and that she could come and go as she pleased.

"I thought that she was going to be there with me, working with me, and then when we went to the bus station, she's like, 'Adios! Bye, see ya!' I never ever saw her there," Jasmine said.

"When I got there, other women told me, 'No, she gets paid' to bring women there."

Jasmine said she later discovered she'd been sold to the Germans for roughly $65 (U.S.). She said that she was stuck inside an ocean-side apartment with three other women and that the first time she met the owner of the apartment -- one of the German pimps -- he raped her.

"I realized that I couldn't leave the flat. There were two big German guys that were also there, all the time. I couldn't go to the shop. I couldn't go to the beach. I couldn't go anywhere," she said.

Jasmine and the three other women were not kept in Mossel Bay long. Every few days, she said, they were moved to new, unfamiliar locations.

"In the middle of the night, like about 2 o'clock in the night, they would come and they'd switch on the lights and [say], 'Come! Take you stuff now, quickly!'" Jasmine said. She estimated she was moved more than 10 times, something she now recognizes as a tactic by her pimps to control her and the other women.

"They don't want you to get too familiar with a place. … That is why they never take ladies from the area," she said.

Global impact?

As South Africa awaits an estimated half-million soccer fans for the World Cup, there are increasing concerns that more people will become victims of human trafficking and that younger women and girls, in particular, will be at risk.

One-third of all workers in South Africa are unemployed and nearly 70 percent of South African children live in poverty, according to Patric Solomons, director of the Cape Town-based children's advocacy group Molo Songololo.

Patric Solomons
ESPNPatric Solomons is the director of the Cape Town-based children's advocacy group, Molo Songololo.

Solomons fears relaxed visa controls at South Africa's already porous borders, the decision by South African public school officials to give children vacation during the month-long soccer tournament starting Friday and the influx of hundreds of thousands of foreigners with deep pockets have created a perfect storm for sex trafficking.

"The magnitude of the event will definitely have an impact," Solomons said. Determining just how much is no easy task.

In 2000, according to Johannesburg police, an estimated 38,000 children each year were being forced into prostitution in South Africa. Various medical sources have since placed the estimates closer to 20,000 children, Solomons said.

"We actually do not know how big the problem is, of trafficking … or children just being prostituted or sexually exploited within South Africa," Solomons said. "We really do not know."

That acknowledgement is rare in a realm in which wild estimates often are stated as fact. Before the 2006 World Cup in Germany, for example, several anti-trafficking advocacy groups said 40,000 women would be trafficked to Germany and forced to work within the sex industry for the World Cup.

A 2007 report by the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, a respected anti-trafficking group that advises governments and provides training to police agencies worldwide, found "the estimates of 40,000 foreign prostitutes or even 40,000 forced prostitutes were not supported."

Of the 33 suspected human trafficking cases reported to the Federal Criminal Police Office in Germany, "only five cases were assumed to have a direct link to the 2006 World Cup," according to the IOM report.

Prostitution was legal in Germany during the 2006 World Cup and remains legal today. Numerous advocacy groups say the policing strategies and public awareness campaigns before the World Cup in Germany had the effect of dramatically reducing the number of trafficking victims who ultimately were discovered there.

In South Africa, public service announcements airing on television and radio stations are reminiscent of the human trafficking estimates stated publicly before the 2006 World Cup.

"Leading up to the 2010 World Cup, as many as 100,000 victims are expected to fall prey to traffickers, pimps and underground crime syndicates," warns one anti-trafficking message starring several popular South African actors and musicians.

"What we have seen is misreporting of facts," said Eric Harper, director of the Cape Town-based Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT). Harper said South Africa would do well to learn from the German example, in which the number of trafficking victims ultimately identified by police paled in comparison to the pretournament hype. To control trafficking, he argued, prostitution should be legalized.

"Of course we are concerned about trafficking, and the sex workers would like to fight in the fight against trafficking … but as long as sex workers are criminalized, you are driving the industry further and further underground," Harper said.

As recently as 2007, government officials in South Africa, including then-national police commissioner Jackie Selebi, pushed to legalize prostitution in time for the 2010 World Cup. The effort gained traction, in part because of concerns about the spread of HIV and AIDS. The United Nations estimates that 5.1 million people in South Africa are HIV-positive, and, according to recent studies, roughly half of all prostitutes have HIV.

Selebi's controversial and ill-fated position on prostitution speaks to a larger issue. In South Africa, according to different advocacy groups and even sources within law enforcement, the police themselves often turn a blind eye to the illegal sex trade. A city vice squad created in Cape Town this past September remains the only one of its kind in all of South Africa, according to the unit's assistant chief, Neil Arendse.

Anti-trafficking advocates such as Tonya Stanfield have heard the arguments for legalization before and remain convinced the underground sex trade would grow exponentially under such a system.

"How can you decriminalize an industry that is interlaced with organized crime and drug addiction?" Stanfield said. "How can you bring some sort of order to that and police that in a way that sex workers are free to be sex workers and have the rights of all workers, when the people they are working for don't care a lick about human rights?"

Solomons pointed out that South Africa, unlike Germany, has a host of factors that make it uniquely susceptible to exploitation by human trafficking syndicates: a huge, impoverished lower class and, unlike more than half the world's countries, no law specifically criminalizing all forms of human trafficking.

Errol Naidoo
Nicole Noren/ESPNLobbyist and activist Errol Naidoo, outside the gates of South Africa's Parliament in Cape Town.

Last month, South African President Jacob Zuma signed legislation that makes trafficking in minors a crime, but more comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation remains stuck in a committee within the South African Parliament and won't be passed into law until late 2010 at the earliest, according to Errol Naidoo, an activist and lobbyist who pushed hard to get the legislation passed before the World Cup started.

"I think that most people are just appalled that government is not taking this seriously enough," Naidoo said in a recent interview near his Cape Town office, just outside the gates of Parliament.

"Recently, they arrested nine Nigerian traffickers … and they don't have the law in place to effectively and comprehensively deal with these guys."

An ordained minister who runs the conservative Family Policy Institute, Naidoo said sex traffickers see the World Cup as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to "cash in."

"They are operating on the principle that there are many desperate young women in South Africa because of the high levels of unemployment, of poverty and desperation, so they are feeding off that and they know that they stand to make millions and millions of rand [South Africa's currency] over the period [of the World Cup]," Naidoo said.

A new phenomenon

In Johannesburg, where the World Cup begins Friday, the number of brothels has doubled within the past year, according to one law enforcement source. The source, who spoke to "Outside the Lines" in an extensive interview in early May, agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because of the undercover nature of his work. He explained that he has spent years penetrating human trafficking syndicates and that he had found 10 trafficking victims in Johannesburg-area brothels alone in just the two weeks before the interview.

"In the last couple weeks, there has been an increase in domestic trafficking, and it has been for the World Cup," the source said.

He went on to speak of a Cape Town organized-crime syndicate known as "The Firm," an umbrella organization made up of roughly 100 smaller criminal groups that collectively run the sex trade in Cape Town. The Firm, according to the source, recently expanded to include Chinese crime syndicates. "Cape Town is cut and dried into organized crime like you can't believe," he said.

J.P. Smith
Nicole Noren/ESPNCity Councillor J.P. Smith inspects a passport inside a brothel in Cape Town.

"Some of the worst trafficking we're seeing is amongst Southeast Asians and Chinese," said Councillor J.P. Smith, the Cape Town city official responsible for safety and security during the World Cup.

"I can tell you we've been raiding [brothels] in my suburb and surrounding suburbs for 10 years. … I have never seen the amount of Chinese nationals we've seen in the last six months to a year."

Smith said the Cape Town vice squad, created in September, has been profiling prostitutes since November. Since then, according to Smith, the number of foreign nationals working as prostitutes has doubled.

"Where we're starting to see a lot of foreign nationals is in brothels in residential suburbs," Smith said. "Chinese nationals, Mozambican, Zambian, Zimbabwean and other Southeast Asian. That's worrying. And they were not here a year ago."

"These girls didn't come here by themselves," Smith said. "They're being brought here through syndicates, who have the means to manipulate immigration processes, to bribe border patrol, border guards, to bribe immigration officials."

When asked for an explanation, Smith said: "The only assumption you can make is they're anticipating increased business around the World Cup."

Safe haven

Back at the safe house on the outskirts of Cape Town, Jasmine recounted the story of her final months in the sex trade.

She said she almost left South Africa when one of the German pimps she worked for in Mossel Bay told her he wanted to take her to Austria. Convinced she simply would be sold again and might not survive if she agreed to go with him to Europe, she searched for a way out.

"I knew I wanted to get away, but I didn't know what reason I could tell them," she said.

When her daughter's father died in May 2009, she saw an opening. She told the German pimps she had to return to Cape Town to attend to family matters.

"'If you want me to come back, you'll let me go now,'" she said she told them. She never went back.

But Jasmine was hardly free. Still hooked on drugs, including crack cocaine, and fearing the Germans would find her, she avoided brothels and escort agencies and instead worked the streets of Cape Town, living for months in a budget motel.

Earlier this year, she said, she was beaten and gang-raped by a group of customers. She said the men drove her to an unfamiliar area and simply left her.

With nowhere to go, she reached out to a safe house that takes in prostitutes and former gang members. She said she has since rediscovered her faith and hopes to be reunited with her daughter, who is with Jasmine's mother. It was Jasmine's mother who told her about the safe house where Jasmine has been since earlier this year.

"I was desperate for change," she said from the safe house where she has lived since February.

She's convinced that because of the World Cup, more women will be drawn into a life she only recently escaped.

"The men of South Africa are OK with their wives, their mothers, their daughters, their sisters … being sold," she said. "It's already sick enough that we are being exploited by our own men; now it's to get exploited by people from other countries."

John Barr is a reporter and Nicole Noren a producer in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Barr can be reached through e-mail at jbarr-espn@hotmail.com. Melanie Hamman, a Johannesburg-based producer and photographer, contributed to this report.

John Barr | email

Reporter ESPN Enterprise Unit