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Have hordes of sex workers snubbed the Commonwealth games?

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Is it possible that somewhere out there is a lost tribe of sex workers, condemned forever to wander the globe in search of work and pay? We only ask because the latest alarming reports from the Commonwealth Games in Delhi warn of some 40,000 sex workers about to descend on the event.

Indian NGO Impulse NGO Network seem to believe that sex trade workers numbered in their thousands have been lured to India by promises of "lucrative pay" - though in reality they face exploitation and abuse.

For some reason 40,000 just happens to be the magic number of sex workers that were forecast to turn up at the World Cup in South Africa this year, at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver before that, and at the last World Cup in Germany. What is the significance of this number?

Exploiting trafficked sex workers is big business – not least for politicians and charity organisations riding on the back of this issue.

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that sex trafficking at major sporting events is mostly an urban myth. The Metropolitan Police are sceptical, urging vigilance, accompanied by a sense of proportion.

However, critics say that politicians such as London Mayor Boris Johnson, as well as church leaders and charity groups, still spread alarmist claims that are actively harming sex workers.

Let’s start with the World Cup which was forecast to attract as many as 40,000 additional sex workers. Given that the eventual total for all additional visitors to South Africa is estimated at between 300,000 and 400,000, that’s the scarcely commercial proposition of one trafficked sex worker to every 10 tourists.

An investigation by Women24 gives a very different picture. Johannesburg sex worker Zodwa Sangweni describes the World Cup season as a bust, telling the magazine: "We didn’t work well; there was no money."

According to Dianne Massawe, Advocacy Officer at the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), most Cape Town sex workers she spoke with told her business was slower than usual. Sex work expert Henry Trotter agreed, noting that most World Cup fans weren’t interested in paid sex.

What about other sporting events? The usual suspects were out and about at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver last winter, with the Canadian Salvation Army asserting authoritatively that "the numbers [of trafficked sex workers] are expected to increase in 2010 with the Winter Olympics’ influx of international visitors".

When this increase did not materialise the answer was simple. As Sheila Coates, a Director with South Essex Rape and Crisis Centre explained: "In Vancouver it looks like it wasn’t as big a problem as anticipated because they planned for it and planned it out."

Then there was the World Cup in Germany in 2006, where forecasts of an additional 40,000 trafficked sex workers were again bandied about - and again failed to materialise. German police may have made five arrests for trafficking during this period although, as a report (pdf) by the widely respected Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women suggests: "all data, information and expert statements strongly indicate this (increase) did not occur either during or after the World Cup."

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