World football authorities have come under fire as it is estimated that 15000 children are being trafficked annually into Europe by fraudulent agents.
The football-driven migration of African boys to Europe leaves a murky trail. The business is embroiled in a web that includes human trafficking, child exploitation, money laundering, child benefit fraud and, in the vast majority of cases, broken dreams.
In 2018, Reuters reported that nearly 2,120 children who were feared to have been trafficked were referred for support to British authorities in 2017. This was up from about 1,300 in 2016 who were also feared to have been trafficked.
The issue has brought to light the hypocrisy that surrounds the migration debate in Europe. Critics and advocates have called out authorities for having double standards when it comes to the influx of foreigners into Europe.
‘What we find in a lot of the debate about migration is that some migrants are more acceptable than others,’ Professor Dr James Esson, lecturer in human geography at Loughborough University points out. ‘A Polish footballer playing at Wembley is fine, but it seems a Polish plumber fixing the toilets at Wembley is less welcome.’
The majority of the victims of the illicit trade are coming from Africa and South-America and academics have noted how several EU clubs (often through unscrupulous agents) traffic and employ African minors, paying them a pittance to play professionally.
The starting point of the illicit transactions are usually the football academies which are located in African countries. The scouts recruit the boys from the academies and at times they have been accused of being fully aware that some of the boys will not make the cut to play professionally.
The charity Culture Foot Solidaire (CFS) calculates that agents make a windfall of anywhere between £2,000 and £6,500 from each of the ambitious boys’ families. Once in Europe, the children, youths, or young men are almost always left to their own devices.
‘The son goes with the agent, there is no trial, they are abandoned at the airport in Europe,’ says Desmond. ‘The agent has made thousands of dollars, conned the family and just goes off and does it again in another part of Benin City in Nigeria, or wherever he is.’
In the rare instance where the aspiring players are talented and may possibly make the grade, they may find themselves stuck because the agent cannot push a deal through. In the case that a deal comes through, the contracts that await are often hugely unfavorable to the footballer but lucrative for the agent.
This culture of contracts that largely favor the agents can be traced back to a FIFA decision in 2001. FIFA stipulated that clubs involved in the training and education of players aged 12 to 23 must receive financial compensation from any buying clubs. The outcome was actually the opposite of what was intended: the regulations gave a monetary value to the labour and investment spent training youth players.
‘This made footballers at academies more than human resources,’ says Esson. ‘They became a potential source of capital.’
European regulators have been complacent due to an existing regulation gap. When a club is transferring an EU minor, there are added regulatory obligations regarding football education, academic provisions, and living standards. These are imposed on the purchasing team and are in line with FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players. The same provisions are not applicable to African minors.
Critics say that the difficulty for FIFA and UEFA is that the organisations’ own rules – sometimes well-intentioned – have made matters worse. For example, in July 2015, FIFA lowered the age limit for transfers from 12 to 10-years-old, saying the move aimed to ‘curb unacceptable practices’, regulate such transfers and safeguard the interests of children. Before the change, clubs only needed to go through the official process of applying for an International Transfer Certificate if their target was at least 12-years-old. Those under that age were being signed up or moved to Europe, often without any semblance of regulation.
FIFA has in the past said the organisation could only regulate activities within the scope of organised football. ‘Issues related to “child trafficking”, like any other criminal activity, fall within the competence of the relevant national and international authorities (police, judicial, governmental),’ a spokesperson stated. ‘Such matters are outside of FIFA’s jurisdiction, although we certainly welcome measures that show authorities are taking them very seriously.’
Some of the strongest rhetoric around the trafficking of young footballers has described the process as ‘neo-colonialist’ and it is no coincidence that the trade has historically been strongest between European nations and their colonies.
According to Dr Paul Darby at the University of Ulster, ‘African colonies were recognised as being rich in natural resources, raw material and cheap labour. This applied not just to economic activity but also football. In effect, the process was a mining of just another of Africa’s raw materials – in this case, football talent.’
For many years, it was the countries who had the strongest presence there – France and Belgium – who benefited. Players from North Africa were apparent in French teams from the 1930s and by 1938 there were more than 140 Africans playing in the French professional leagues; sizeable numbers of players born in the former French territories of Cameroon, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Algeria and Mali have regularly appeared in the French leagues.
Portugal’s late colonial era also saw a large number of players move to Europe and major Portuguese clubs such as Sporting Lisbon, Benfica and Porto, particularly from Mozambique and more recently from Angola, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau.
‘The historical influences of European colonialism remain knitted into the fabric and routes of African football migration,’ says Darby.