NEW YORK, Jan 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Uber drivers, hoteliers and football stars have joined forces to sound an alarm ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl as hype intensifies about a spike in trafficking around the U.S. sporting spectacle.
The only problem is the warnings are not true, experts say.
“We are simply saying - it is not an opinion - that there is no evidence for an increase in trafficking at the Super Bowl,” said Borislav Gerasimov of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, an alliance of dozens of anti-trafficking groups.
As hundreds of thousands of people flock to Florida’s party city of Miami for Sunday’s big game, police, politicians, business and celebrities are out campaigning in the run-up, all talking up a raised risk of human trafficking.
Even Uber has joined the stars and officials in warning about the impact of a growing, global problem on the biggest U.S. sporting event.
An estimated 400,000 people are believed trapped in modern slavery in the United States, from sex work to forced labor, according to the Walk Free Foundation, a human rights group.
And whenever crowds gather, be it for a biker rally, concert or conference, there is added opportunity for escorts and sex work - with the Super Bowl seen on a scale of its own.
“We have this sort of idea that somehow the Super Bowl is different than other events, but it’s not,” said Lauren Martin, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, who has studied human trafficking at the mega event.
Incidents of trafficking increase modestly during the Super Bowl, but the slight uptick is not unique to the giant football event, according to her 2018 Super Bowl analysis.
“Really any event is going to change the marketplace for which commercial sex is happening,” said Martin.
Big names have not let that argument get in their way.
Florida’s attorney general has teamed up with hotel groups and ride-sharing firm Uber to educate drivers on how to spot and report potential trafficking ahead of the championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Former National Football League players - including Aaron Rodgers, Nick Foles and Ryan Tannehill - have also pledged their support to anti-trafficking efforts.
And the Miami Police Department told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it was working with federal, state and other law enforcement bodies, watching hotels for signs of sex trafficking or of people buying sex online.
During the week of last year’s Super Bowl game in Atlanta, Georgia, more than 160 people were arrested on human trafficking charges, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the nation’s domestic intelligence and security service.
Eighteen victims of trafficking were rescued during the same period. Half were children, the youngest aged 14.
The numbers are worrying but not show stoppers, according to experts in an increasingly busy field. In 2018, Polaris - which runs a national trafficking hotline - worked on 10,949 cases and said this was just a fraction of the actual picture.
Plus the increased enforcement and media focus might yield more arrests, they say, rather than speak to any rise in crime.
The media, experts say, is playing a key role in the hype.
“The annual stories that one sees about human trafficking at the Super Bowl perhaps reflect the tendency in the media to require a ‘hook’ in order to confront uncomfortable social problems,” Luis C.deBaca, former U.S. anti-trafficking ambassador-at-large, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The popularity, or perceived popularity, of such stories should actually let editors know that there is a public appetite to cover trafficking for the rest of the year,” C.deBaca said.
“Because the traffickers and their victims ...will still be with us next week and the week after.” (Reporting by Matthew Lavietes; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Lyndsay Griffiths