Human Trafficking and the London Games - Policy Brief

19 March 2012


©UNODC 2006

Human trafficking in the United Kingdom is not a new security concern, however I would like to call the Mayor’s attention to the possibility of a heightened threat leading up to and during the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

The following policy brief will:

• Provide a situation update on UK and global human trafficking trends

• Outline potential trafficking threats during the 2012 Games

• Provide policy options for combatting human trafficking during the 2012 Olympics and beyond

There is little consensus about human trafficking proliferation around major sporting events; however it is critical that London authorities take every available precaution. Human trafficking is a security threat in the UK, and today anti-trafficking operations are understaffed, underfunded, and lack uniformity in enforcement.

Global Human Trafficking Trends

Human trafficking is a lucrative business affecting every region in the world. It often involves organized crime, money laundering, and the worst kinds of physical and psychological abuse. Incidence is covert and under reported; according to the UN Global Program Against Trafficking in Human Beings (GPAT), only five percent of victims report their situation or are known by government authorities. Nevertheless, it is carried out on a massive scale. An estimated 600,000-800,000 individuals were trafficked in 2005 alone.

UNODC identifies 127 countries of origin for human trafficking victims, 98 transit countries, and 137 destination countries. Nations in Asia and Eastern Europe are often countries of origin and transit, while Western Europe and North America rank high on the list of destination regions.

The UK is high on UNODC’s list of destination countries, and there are currently at least 5,000 trafficking victims inside the country. As with trends globally, human trafficking victims in the UK are predominately women and children brought into the country for sexual exploitation, forced labor, and cannabis farming. Adults and children come mainly from China, South East Asia, and Eastern Europe. The UK is signatory to two international declarations and five national laws regarding human trafficking. The anti-trafficking framework is in place, but insufficient operational steps have been taken thus far leading up to the 2012 games.

2012 Olympic Games: Heightened Threat or Just Hype?

An influx of tourists and visitors to London presents a lucrative opportunity for traffickers to profit from an increased demand for prostitution, street crime, and begging. In addition, the demand for cheap labor is steep -- the Olympic construction projects are some of the largest in Europe -- raising the risk of abuse.

But are these fears warranted?

Before the 2006 World Cup in Germany, experts predicted 40,000 individuals would be trafficked into the country; likewise, in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, experts predicted 60,000 trafficked individuals. Both predictions proved to be unfounded. One could argue that the covert nature of human trafficking makes it impossible to confirm or deny these predictions. As stated previously, trafficking is significantly underreported. UK officials should be no less vigilant, and there is evidence that traffickers are already targeting London.

Authorities have identified shifts in trafficking patterns that appear to be connected to the upcoming Games. Romanian organized crime networks have trafficked thousands of victims to the UK over the last few years, and reports show that they are now moving those victims internally closer to the Olympic village. The Safe Exit Project reports a recent increase in prostitution in the Olympic boroughs and predicts a heightened demand during the Games.

The following policy recommendations are designed to address the human trafficking threat in the short and long-term, taking into consideration the financial constraints of the national and local government.

1. In times of austerity, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Draw on existing anti-trafficking resources/best practices to maximize efficiency and minimize financial cost during the Games.

In austerity times we cannot afford working groups, consultants, etc. to develop new programs; we need to use existing resources that are not necessarily financial. For example, there are already effective programs working at the local level. Expand them.

The borough of Hillingdon’s Child Trafficking Sub Group (CTSG) illustrates an effective and successful model that can be augmented. Traffickers often bring victims into the UK through major airports and the CTSG works on several levels at Heathrow, identifying traffickers, pursuing law enforcement and providing immediate assistance for victims. For the 2012 Games, Hillingdon’s model should be extended to London’s other international airports -- Gatwick, London City, Luton, and Stansted.

2. Standardize enforcement policies throughout the UK, to respect obligations of the 2011 European Union Directive

One of the goals of the 2011 EU Directive on human trafficking is to standardize national definitions of trafficking crimes and penalties. However, the UK has failed to live up to this obligation. Devolution of law enforcement in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, means that each region has unique policies. Consensus is vital. Inconsistency leads to inadequate protection and the possibility of victims being re-trafficked throughout the UK and Republic of Ireland.

This recommendation should be easier to implement than the first because the change agents are more bureaucratic than budgetary. However politics could be a challenge to implementation. Devolution of power generally in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales may mean that policy makers are unwilling to give up a degree of autonomy and centralize. Nevertheless, the UK is expected to standardize under the 2011 Directive; therefore if politicians face opposition at home, they can argue that they have no choice but to comply.


Some argue that human trafficking to London will not increase during the Olympics and that anti-trafficking groups exaggerate the threat. With differing expert opinions, it is impossible to come to a definitive conclusion. I have offered two policy recommendations, one focused on the immediate threat during the Games and the other taking a long-term view towards standardizing anti-trafficking enforcement; both account for the global recession. What is certain is that human trafficking remains a serious problem in the UK, whether the Olympics increase incidence or not.

Blair Greenbaum

UCL - The School of Public Policy