LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain’s Premier League said on Monday it was concerned about “scammers and fraudsters” trafficking children to Britain with false promises of playing for leading football clubs, in a trend anti-slavery campaigners fear is going largely under the radar.
Thousands of suspected child slaves from countries including Albania, Afghanistan, Sudan and Vietnam have been uncovered by the British government in recent years - with most trapped in forced labor, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation.
Many of them are first trafficked into Britain by men posing as agents and criminal networks that offer the children and their families the prospect of a lucrative footballing career abroad and a salary to send back home, according to activists.
Instead of embarking on a career at a top club, many children are abandoned or enslaved after being taken to Britain in exchange for thousands of pounds - often their family’s savings - said anti-child trafficking charity ECPAT UK.
“It is very concerning to hear that scammers and fraudsters are attempting to trick people in this way, and that it can lead to such awful circumstances for young people,” a spokeswoman for the Premier League told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
“Premier League clubs would never ask families from overseas to pay for elite football trials for their children,” she said after an investigation by The Times newspaper, adding that the league may speak to clubs about the extent of the phenomenon.
Nearly 2,120 children feared to have been trafficked were referred for support to authorities in Britain last year, up from about 1,300 in 2016, according to government figures.
Yet many child victims avoid seeking help or going to the authorities as they fear they may be arrested or deported, said Debbie Beadle, ECPAT’s head of youth development programs.
“The trafficking of children through false promises of a footballing career is widely underreported through official channels ... making it difficult to measure the true scale.”
Under Britain’s world-leading 2015 Modern Slavery Act, large companies must produce an annual statement disclosing what they have done to ensure their supply chains are free of slavery.
Several major football teams, including Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, have outlined on their websites their policies to ensure the wellbeing of children at their clubs.
Sierra Leonean and ex-Premier League footballer Alhassan Bangura in 2015 said he was trafficked as a teenager to Britain, where he narrowly escaped being forced into the sex trade.
At least 13,000 people in Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of modern slavery - but police say the true figure is far more likely to be in the tens of thousands.