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Spotlight on Human Trafficking Before World Cup in South Africa

Officials warn event will bring huge increase in human trafficking, but recent study indicates initial forecasts may have been exaggerated

As South Africa prepares to host the FIFA 2010 World Cup, international organizations and local non-governmental organizations are warning the event will bring with it a huge increase in human trafficking. But a recent study indicates that while the problem is severe it may not be as extensive as has been suggested.

"What is human trafficking? It is modern day slavery; a violation of human rights; a crime against humanity; it is just plain evil, and it is happening - right here, right now in South Africa. Not only is it already happening - it is going to get worse."

If this public service announcement is to be believed, tens of thousands of people will be trafficked in South Africa during the month-long 2010 World Cup in June and July. But Carol Allais of the University of South Africa, UNISA, says such claims are exaggerated.

"I must also say that these huge numbers that are being bandied around, so many people expected to be trafficking, 40,000, 120,000, are totally alarmist and exaggerated," Allais said.

She was the team leader of a recent study on trafficking in South Africa, although the report also touched on Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho. Allais says at present the number of people trafficked to, in or from South Africa each year is currently not known, but that the real figure is more likely to be in the hundreds than in the thousands. But, she says, trafficking is a very real problem in this country.

"There is enough even from the little bits of quantitative data that we manage to get hold of , and a lot of anecdotal data from various, from a range of stake holders; it is definitely a problem and a lot of people are at risk," Allais said.

The study led by Allais is the first comprehensive investigation done in South Africa - it was commissioned by the country's National Prosecuting Authority and done under the auspices of the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria. But researchers said their ability to investigate the problem was severely curtailed because governments in the region do not gather statistics on trafficking, and because the team was not given names and details of government officials dealing with it.

Up to now, only the International Organization on Migration has kept statistics and those are confined to the cases they deal with. The IOM's program manager for counter-trafficking and irregular migration, Mariam Khokhar, tells VOA that since 2003 they have dealt with 310 trafficked people in South Africa. Khokhar says this is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

"These are cases that have been detected. There are cases that have not been detected and those must be very many more we believe, because there is not a focus on trafficking in persons in the region," Khokhar said.

UNISA's Allais says there is not a significant number of South Africans being trafficked to other countries. Instead, she says, the study reveals that South Africa has a problem with people, mostly young women, being trafficked internally and is also a destination for people trafficked from the African continent and from further afield, primarily Thailand. Most are destined for the sex industry.

Sister Colleen Wilkinson, of the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, runs a shelter for trafficked women in Pretoria. She says the shelter has taken in 156 mostly young women since 2004, and that 98-percent are Thais trafficked to brothels in Pretoria. She says it seems that nationals of both countries are complicit in the trade.

"It looks like a combination of South African and Thai, in some sort of partnership. But I do not know about all the cases, just some of the cases have been a mixture of Thai and South African," Wilkinson said.

As in other countries, international crime syndicates are often involved in trafficking people into South Africa, often alongside other criminal activities such as illicit drugs and money laundering.

South Africa has signed and ratified the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Person, especially Women and Children. National legislation against human trafficking is at present before parliament, and is expected to be adopted before the start of the 2010 World Cup. Awareness workshops are being conducted in schools and law enforcement agencies.

But Allais says much more needs to be done including setting up a trafficking information management system, skills training for government officials, accelerated information campaigns and incorporating teaching about the dangers of human trafficking at primary and secondary schools.