The Bigger Picture
According to a 2013 study conducted by Paris-based charity Foot Solidaire, about 15,000 young boys travel to Europe and other countries from West Africa each year.
Some travel by air, mostly to Eastern Europe, using short-stay visas. Others walk across the Sahara Desert to countries like Tunisia and Morocco and take dangerous boat journeys to various parts of Europe.
Once in Europe, they are abandoned after parting with their family’s life savings. Of those who are lucky enough to make it to the trials, the ones that fail are abandoned by the agents who no longer see their economic value.
They are left with no money, too ashamed to let their families back home know the truth. They overstay their visa and become destitute on the streets of Europe.
With this staggeringly high number of trafficked children, it is surprising that Foot Solidaire is the only organisation in the whole of Europe specifically set up to help.
“Since 15 years we are working on this issue of fighting against trafficking,” says Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, the founder of Foot Solidaire and a former international footballer. The organisation tries “to help all these African young players” on the streets of Paris with food, shelter, and psychological help.
The organisation says the average age of these trafficked players is 16. “When they don’t have passports, we try to assist,” says Jean-Claude.
Fraudulent agents like Eric Toumi are breaking several laws. Not in the least, article 32 of the International Convention of the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations on November 20, 1989 which stipulates that:
“The States recognize the right of the child to be protected from the economic exploitation and not to be compelled with any work comprising of the risks or likely to compromise its education or to harm its health or its development physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social”.
Similarly, the Protocol of Palermo, adopted on 15 November 2002, declared that the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered “trafficking in persons”.
Legislation aimed specifically at protecting young people in sport includes the European Parliament resolution of 29 March 2007 on the future of professional football in Europe; and in 2001 the international governing body for football Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), introduced the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players of FIFA. The RSTP, with some exemptions, prohibits the international transfer of minors under 18 years.
Despite these regulations, some clubs still “recruit in Africa, some players at 14”, says Mr Mbvoumin, who believes that FIFA and national football associations need to do more to keep clubs informed about their regulations that protect minors.
Vitus Derungs, a Swiss Attorney at Law and member of Foot Solidaire, in a recent newsletter for the World Sport Law Report, wrote:
“The recent ban imposed on Spanish club Barcelona by the FIFA Disciplinary Committee has brought to light, once more, the issue of player trafficking. The regulations that govern the transfer of underage football players, may have helped curb the illegal inflow of youngsters from Africa and South America, but they fall short of completely preventing player trafficking.”
The reality is that of the 15,000 young African players travelling to achieve their footballing dream each year, less than 1% of them realise this dream.
There are approximately 604 players with Nigerian nationality who currently play worldwide in clubs outside of Nigeria, of which under 400 play in 47 European and Eurasian countries, according to an analysis of data by Soccerway.
And out of 65 players currently playing in the five major leagues – England, Italy, Spain, Germany and France – only 17 play at the equivalent of the Premier League.
An investigation by the Qatar funded International Centre for Sports Security (ICSS) revealed two main avenues fake agents exploit young players. Firstly, there are “criminals who purport to be agents and defraud young footballers online,” most of whom operate out of Nigeria and Ukraine.
Jake Marsh, Senior Manager of Operations, Betting and Sports Integrity at ICSS, said that the investigation “identified numerous fake agent profiles online and spoken to young footballers who have been tricked into transferring money.”
The financial transactions are done via “Money Service Businesses (MSBs) whose anti-fraud control and KYC checks aren’t always as stringent as banks.” Other cases involved those who had “fraudulently established bank accounts in the names of Premier League football clubs.”
Second is the international player trafficking, which Mr Marsh described as being “far more extensive than governments and the football authorities are willing to admit.” Even the United Nations Trafficking Report does not “mention sport when it comes to trafficking or slavery.”
“The ICSS has spoken with one player for example, a teenager from Cameroon, who was taken at the age of 16 from Cameroon believing that he had a trial at a top club in England. The ‘agent’ who took him did not ask for any money but initially took him to Nigeria where the boy was made to work for no money and was essentially held against his will.”
The agent later transported the young boy to England after acquiring a fake passport. Luckily for him he was able to escape once in England, with the help of the Red Cross.
“The ICSS believes that had this boy not escaped when he arrived in England (and got to the Red Cross) then he may well have been subjected to some form of slavery, sexual exploitation, or co-opted into a life of crime.”
In April 2015, FIFA discontinued its system of accredited agents, replacing it with intermediaries. Many in the system have questioned this move.
For Jean-Claude, this was not a wise move by the governing body. “If you don’t have licensed agents, how can you distinguish the good from the bad?” He also questions FIFA’s regulations governing the Status and Transfer of Players, that allow International Transfer Certificates to be issued for children as young as 12.
“We are talking about children, they are footballers, they are athletes, but they are young players, they are children.”
He hopes that after the FIFA elections next year, “maybe there will be another working group” to review these decisions, and that the protection of minors will be one of the top issues for the new FIFA president.