UNICEF: Addressing the Complex Issues of Trafficked Children in and Around Sport

Published 30 September 2022

Addressing sports trafficking is complex and multi-layered, but Liz Twyford offers a child-protection framework for organisations that can aide in choosing the next steps in tackling sports trafficking.

Liz Twyford is the Sports Programme Specialist at UNICEF UK, with a wealth of experience in the fields of children's rights, sport and international development. She speaks with us about the ways in which UNICEF has sought to tackle sports trafficking, and explains why cities that host major sporting events must understand how sports trafficking is linked to the life cycle of these major events.

What actions is UNICEF implementing to tackle sports trafficking?

UNICEF seeks to end all forms of child trafficking, including for children trafficked in and through sport. We do this by supporting Governments, communities, and service providers to strengthen national and cross-border approaches, with a focus on:

  • Expanding safe and legal pathways for children to move with their families, including accelerating refugee status determinations and addressing obstacles in law and practice that prevent children from reuniting with their families;
  • Strengthening child and social protection systems to prevent, identify, refer, and address cases of trafficking, violence, abuse, and exploitation against children and respond to children with specific needs based on age and gender;
  • Ensuring that sustainable solutions are guided by an individual assessment of the child’s case and best interests determination, regardless of the child’s status, and that the child participates in this process to a degree appropriate to her / his age and maturity;
  • We are improving cross-border collaboration and knowledge exchange between and among border control, law enforcement, and child protection authorities, and implementing faster family tracing and reunification procedures and alternative care arrangements for children deprived of parental care.
  • Avoiding measures may push children to choose riskier routes and move alone to avoid detection by law enforcement.

We know that in many contexts, there is a lack of sustainable solutions for child victims of trafficking – including long-term assistance, rehabilitation, and protection. Many child protection systems remain under-resourced, and there is an acute lack of guardianship and other alternative care arrangements. Children are often placed in inadequate shelters, where they risk further traumatization and re-victimization. Trafficked boys can face additional challenges, as gender stereotypes can prevent them from getting or seeking the help they need, while girls may also be at risk of further exploitation and abuse due to gender discrimination and gendered poverty.

By working to strengthen the systems that prevent trafficking or that respond effectively to support trafficked children, we aim to make a positive difference in sport and beyond.

Interestingly, sport was an early focus of UNICEF’s work on child trafficking. In 1993, the United Arab Emirates created a ban on child jockeys and worked with UNICEF to repatriate the boys involved. Most child jockeys came from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mauritania, and Sudan.

Implementing the ban and supporting children to return home wasn’t easy. It sometimes took months to find their families, who often lived in extreme poverty, and in most cases, the jockey’s family knowingly “sold” their children to people in the camel racing business.

UNICEF worked to make sure that the children were not worse off by being sent home, nor resold to the racing business. They received health insurance and schooling under the programme, which also paid for temporary housing in their home countries.


"Implementing the ban and supporting children to return home wasn’t easy. It sometimes took months to find their families, who often lived in extreme poverty, and in most cases, the jockey’s family knowingly “sold” their children to people in the camel racing business"


This example demonstrates the scale and complexity of the task in addressing child trafficking in sport, and effectively supporting the children involved – from the need for Government policy, through to effective social welfare, and finally, education and support for families and communities, and the children affected.

What are some impacts that mega sporting events can have on the rights of children in countries hosting sporting events?

Sport’s impact on children should not be underestimated. Sport can provide children with role models, inspire them to pick up a ball or racket for the first time, provide them with opportunities to learn new skills and for recreation, and help them to make friends and operate as part of a team.

It should follow, then, that Major Sporting Events (MSEs) also positively impact children, and act as a platform to highlight important issues affecting them, providing opportunities to develop social and infrastructure legacies that benefit children, and empowering them to meaningfully participate and share their own views about activities which could have long-lasting impacts on their lives.

Despite this potential for positive outcomes, evidence from MSEs gone by demonstrates a range of negative impacts for children involved at each stage of the MSE lifecycle. The sudden influx of people before and during event time has a myriad of consequences for those living in and around host cities, particularly for more vulnerable individuals and marginalised groups. This influx poses a particular risk to children, who can find themselves subjected to sexual exploitation and abuse.

A key challenge here is the absence of adequate research and evidence on the scale and nature of this exploitation. Similarly, trafficking of adults and children is often connected to MSEs, with anecdotal evidence based on the premise that the arrival of labourers, tourists and fans seeking entertainment and ready to spend money will lead to an increase in sexual exploitation. Despite a lack of concrete data on these issues, several key actors are already taking positive steps towards preventing and mitigating such risks.


"Despite this potential for positive outcomes, evidence from major sporting events gone by demonstrates a range of negative impacts for children involved at each stage of the major sporting event life cycle"


During the MSE itself, host cities open their doors to fans, broadcasters, and security personnel – offering hosts the opportunity to showcase their cities to the world and grasp the chance to attract future tourism. Unfortunately, such an influx can have severe consequences for some children, who can face an increased risk of violence.

Evidence suggests that, in countries where levels of poverty and inequality are more extreme and visible, there is pressure on MSE organisers to clear the streets to produce a more polished image of the host city. Such ‘clean-ups’ can lead to the displacement of street-connected children, with MSE hosts sometimes going to extreme measures to do so.

There have also been a significant number of instances when MSE hosts have carried out forced evictions and moved families from their homes to make way for construction of venues, athletes’ villages, or new transport infrastructure connected to the event, or have moved families into temporary accommodation to free up hotel rooms for visitors. Children can find themselves re-housed with their families in unfamiliar neighbourhoods, sometimes with higher crime rates, and with limited access to their places of education and provision of healthcare.

Child labour, and all its negative impacts, have also long been associated with MSEs, and organisers are facing scrutiny around their supply chains as well services being delivered during the event itself. UNICEF has produced a guide to support businesses to act to address child labour.

Finally, it is impossible to decouple elite-level competition from the danger that violence and abuse is experienced by elite child athletes at the hands of their coaches and other members of their entourage. Without MSEs, the pinnacle of elite sport, the leverage and power that is at the heart of this abuse would be significantly tempered. Whether still children or now in adulthood, people with lived experiences have come forward to share their testimonies of being abused as child athletes.


"Child labour, and all its negative impacts, have also long been associated with major sporting events, and organisers are facing scrutiny around their supply chains as well services being delivered during the event itself. UNICEF has produced a guide to support businesses to act to address child labour"


These cases of abuse highlight the need for more robust legislation covering the actions of key post holders in the child athlete’s entourage. In a number of countries, people in these roles, commonly known as Positions of Trust, are outlawed from having a sexual relationship with a child under their authority, even if that child has reached the age where they can legally consent to sexual activity. Sadly, this legislation is by no means universal, and where it does exist, it often covers roles such as teachers, medical professionals, police, social workers, and prison officers, but not those taking a role in coaching or officiating in sport.


How can organisations better understand the impacts they may have, whether they be positive or negative?

To realise their potential to positively impact children, MSE organisers must be accountable for their responsibilities to respect child rights throughout their event lifecycle. This cannot be done in isolation, simply by applying the UNCRC and relevant ILO conventions – instead, the best interests of the child must be determined by adopting new and child rights-informed approaches, including facilitating the meaningful participation of children in conversations in advance of, during, and after MSEs take place.

As MSE organisers begin to engage more with the children they impact, and better understand the impact of their decisions on children, a clearer picture will be painted of the myriad of ways they are affected during the MSE lifecycle, which can equip International Federations and MSE owners to mitigate risks and capitalise on opportunities at future events.

These considerations of the best interests of the child must be reflected in bidding requirements for potential MSE hosts to help ensure that permanent and systemic, rather than momentary and tokenistic, transformation is achieved.

As a starting point, MSE-awarding bodies should undertake the following actions to ensure children are better protected, they are able to meaningfully participate and contribute their views, and their best interests are considered throughout the MSE lifecycle:

  • Integrate child rights into the bidding process for potential host cities
  • Include child rights obligations in the MSE-awarding contract

And require organisers of mega sporting events to:

  • Allocate sufficient financial resources to facilitate the consideration of child rights throughout the MSE lifecycle
  • Issue a public human rights policy that includes specific reference to child rights as enshrined in the UNCRC
  • Conduct child rights due diligence, including a child rights impact assessment - and act on the finding to reduce negative impacts, such as addressing child labour or the need for greater safeguarding
  • Recruit child rights experts to ensure the Organising Committee has internal capacity on child rights, including the capacity to engage with affected children
  • Support external, independent monitoring of the MSE’s child rights impacts 
  • Ensure access to child-friendly remedy for any potential victims of child rights abuses

For MSE owners, future hosts and organisers, the time to act is now: in order to facilitate a wholly child friendly MSE, children and their rights must be prioritised throughout the MSE lifecycle.