Using International Law to Combat Human Trafficking in Soccer

Frank Sunderland
Vol. 43 Associate Editor

In the world of professional soccer, Europe is the marquis destination for any aspiring player. It is home to the most prestigious leagues and teams, many of which are also the highest paying. However, as with many systems where there exists the possibility for massive profits, there are also several unsavory consequences to the success of European club soccer. While the talent drain of players from other regions into Europe remains controversial, an unacceptable offshoot of this has been the trafficking of thousands of players from developing countries each year. Estimates say around 15,000 players are trafficked into Europe annually, though due to the underworld nature of this problem the true extent of player trafficking is unknown and likely much greater.[1] While international law has mechanisms to address this problem, these possibilities are being underutilized.

The exact means by how these players arrive in Europe can vary, but certain trends arise. Many developing countries have prestigious youth soccer academies that give talented young players the training they need to develop into stars, greatly increasing their chances of ending up in a European league. However, these certified academies have limited space. If a player is unable to secure a spot, they may turn to alternatives that are far less regulated. Some players are approached by agents who claim to have connections to elite clubs. If a player or their family can pay the right amount, then the agent promises to bring them to Europe for a tryout. Many young players then risk all they have on these chances. Some actually are given a tryout, but for many more, once they reach their destination the mysterious agent is nowhere to be found, or they are brought to an obscure or non-federation team that offers meager pay.[2] Once in Europe, many players no longer have the resources to return home and face homelessness and arrest.[3] Some turn to street hawking to make ends meet, while others resort to prostitution and other illegal activities.[4]

When it comes to addressing this problem, domestic, regional, and organizational solutions will undoubtedly play a major role. However, international law can still offer important contributions to eliminate player trafficking. In terms of treaties, there are three that are most relevant to this issue. The first is the International Bill of Human Rights. This bill is a combination of several different U.N. instruments: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICECSR), the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Optional Protocol to the Civil and Political Covenant.[5] While the UDHR is not a treaty, and not every country has ratified the ICECSR and the ICCPR (both of which are treaties), these documents are considered part of customary international law and thus are binding on countries.[6] These documents together create a massive framework of the rights guaranteed to every person. They also contain various provisions that are relevant to alleviating child trafficking, such as the right not to be discriminated against, equal protection of the law, prohibition of human trafficking, employment protections, the right to adequate living conditions, and the right to an education.[7]

Next is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This treaty is like the International Bill of Human Rights in that it creates a comprehensive framework; here addressing political, economic, cultural, and humanitarian rights for children.[8] Regarding player trafficking, the Convention contains several relevant articles. The treaty gives children the right to be protected from any form of trafficking or exploitation, to an equal opportunity education, and to a standard of living adequate for development.[9]

Finally, there is the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). This is the most recent of the three treaties and was designed to combat various industries related to transnational crime, including human trafficking.[10] UNTOC was further strengthened by the signing of three additional protocols (called the Palermo Protocols). Of these, two are particularly relevant to player trafficking: the Protocol To Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons and the Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air.[11] The former protocol in relevant part says states shall combat, criminalize, and prevent the trafficking of children.[12] The latter protocol is meant to prevent and combat the smuggling of migrants, while protecting the rights of migrants who have been smuggled.[13]

These treaties in combination, create an impressive foundation to reduce player trafficking. There are several reasons, though, for why they haven’t been effective in alleviating the problem. First, trafficking in young players is unfortunately still at the stage where awareness and understanding of the issue are quite low.[14] Second, it is unclear to what extent the phenomena of player trafficking even falls under the scope of the different treaties discussed.[15]

Luckily, these are concerns that may present the easiest solutions for international law.  For the first problem, U.N. agencies like UNICEF have the clout and financial capabilities to assist with critical research on this topic. Using the resources of the U.N. system will allow for better understanding of the problem and in turn, better solutions can be crafted. Regarding the second, the relevant treaty bodies could issue guidance on how player trafficking does or does not fall within their scope. This guidance could crucially help countries and other involved parties realize how international law can support their domestic or regional efforts.

In terms of other solutions, one would be to simply foster greater collaboration. Currently, work is being done by a variety of different actors including sports associations, NGOs, destination and origin countries, and border agencies; yet there is no true mechanism for cooperation among these different actors.[16] Using any of the tools available within the U.N. system – such as funds, programmes, or even specialized agencies – to build a global network of engaged actors could provide a much-needed structure to currently disjointed efforts.

Due to the uneven nature of trafficking patterns, primarily players leaving the global south headed towards the global north, international protocols could include financial assistance similar to recent environmental treaties. Recognizing that “developed country Parties” were largely responsible for the acceleration of climate change,[17] article 9 of the Paris Agreement states these countries “shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation.”[18] A similar setup exists when it comes to player trafficking, and movement more broadly. Developed countries are able to profit from and exploit foreign players while developing states lose this resource. Therefore, any attempts at multinational treaties to address player trafficking could include commitments by developed countries, primarily those in Europe as the epicenter of professional soccer, to provide funds to developing countries to combat root causes of trafficking. However, developed countries would likely have even less incentive to commit to a plan like this than they would in the environmental arena, and this financing structure hasn’t proven to be all that effective thus far under the Paris Agreement.[19]

A similar inspiration could be found in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). Though largely thought of as soft law,[20] the UNGPs put a “responsibility to respect human rights [on] business enterprises [to] [a]void causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities [and] [s]eek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations.”[21] This underlying belief of corporate responsibility could be applied directly to the soccer industry. The narrow focus of this approach could allow it to get more support than the UNGPs which dealt with corporations in general and allowed more opportunities for pushback. Even an approach that was nonbinding could be helpful by putting pressure on soccer teams, academies, and agents to reform their practices that lead to trafficking problems.

Attention to the problem of player trafficking has increased in recent years. Nonetheless, international law has not been used to its maximum potential thus far in improving this problem.  By relying on current human rights conventions, harnessing resources of the U.N. system, and possibly implementing new protocols, international law can become a better support to domestic, regional, and organizational efforts tackling player trafficking.

[1] Mark Rowe, Dossier: The Human Game – Tackling Football’s ‘Slave Trade’, Geographical (July 16, 2018),

[2] Juliet Nwagu Ume-Ezeoke, Playing for Keeps, 39 Harv. Int’l Rev. 22, 25 (2018).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Frank C. Newman, Comparative Constitutionalism: Introduction: United States Bill of Rights, International Bill of Human Rights, and Other “Bills”, 40 Emory L.J. 731, 735 (1991).

[6] Id. at 738.

[7] Alex Najarian, “The Lost Boys”: FIFA’s Insufficient Efforts to Stop Trafficking of Youth Footballers, 22 Sports L. J. 151, 161 (2015).

[8] Cynthia Price Cohen & Susan Kilbourne, Jurisprudence of the Committee on the Rights of the Child: A Guide for Research and Analysis, 19 Mich. J. Int’l L. 633, 634 (1998).

[9] Najarian, supra note 7, at 162.

[10] Ian Tennant, Fulfilling the Promise of Palermo? A Political History of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, 2(1) J. Illicit Econs. and Dev. 53, 55 (2021).

[11] Najarian, supra note 7, at 163.

[12] Id.

[13] Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air art. 2, Jan. 28, 2004, 2241 U.N.T.S 507.

[14] See, e.g., University of Nottingham Rights Lab, The Problem of Sports Trafficking: Setting an Agenda for Future Investigation and Action 16 (2021).

[15] Id. at 20.

[16] Ivana Pranjić, Debunking Human Trafficking: Exploitation in Sport, European Non-Governmental Sports Organisation (Oct. 18, 2020),

[17] Navin Singh Khadka, COP26: Rich Countries ‘Pushing Back’ on Paying for Climate Loss, BBC (Nov. 8, 2021),

[18] Climate Finance in the Negotiations, U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, (last visited Nov. 15, 2021).

[19] Khadka, supra note 17.

[20] Jeffrey L. Dunoff, Steven R. Ratner & David Wippman, International Law: Norms, Actors, Process 185 (5th ed. 2020).

[21] Off. U.N. High Comm’r for Hum. Rts., Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, U.N. Doc. HR/PUB/11/04, at 14 (June 16, 2011).


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