As South Africa prepares to welcome hundreds of thousands of World Cup visitors, security forces are stepping up precautions to stop human traffickers at the borders.
South Africa and Mozambique have signed a deal to speed up the immigration process at the main border post for the duration of the World Cup.
At the same time, South Africa has moved to strengthen its anti-trafficking laws while conducting football-themed campaigns to warn parents to keep a close watch on their children during the games.
"While we are excited about the World Cup tournament, we are mindful that an event of this magnitude unfortunately also opens up opportunities for criminals such as those who traffic in women and children," South African President Jacob Zuma said recently.
Statistics on the extent of human trafficking within southern Africa are often conflicting, but experts say the competition that kicks off Friday is an enticing lure.
"This is a natural magnet for traffickers because they figure they can make some good profits. The demand for sex and and drugs really crest during these events on a large scale," Virginia Tilley of South Africa's Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) told AFP.
Young girls in demand
A recent HSRC study found South Africa was a destination for sex traffickers to bring women from Africa and the rest of the world, with young girls in high demand because they are less of an Aids risk.
Last week police freed a 17-year-old South African girl from a brothel in Cape Town.
The country's major tourism companies have signed on to an international code requiring them to include anti-trafficking clauses in their contracts with suppliers. Fair Trade in Tourism in South Africa, which backs that campaign, said the country already has 250 000 children living on the streets, and about 40 000 child prostitutes.
South African schools are closed for a special holiday during the June 11 to July 11 tournament, creating worries about how they will be cared for.
"Children may make their own way to the cities in a desire to be part of festivities, which could render them vulnerable to exploitation," the Fair Trade group said. "An increase in child labour could result from parents sending their children to the street to beg for money from tourists or children being recruited to sell paraphernalia."
Part of the problem in tackling the issue is that trafficking across the region is not prosecuted as a specific crime, so police have few records.
Lesotho, a tiny country completely surrounded by South Africa, recorded only three cases in the past three years, police said. Mozambique has had several well-documented cases of human trafficking, but authorities rarely uncover such activities themselves.
"Trafficking cases are reported in the media. Those cases the police then investigate," said sociologist Joaquim Nhampoca, who works with the Mozambican police.
'Statistics often unreliable'
Chandre Gould, a researcher for the Institute of Security Studies, warned against over-dramatising the problem, saying statistics were often unreliable.
"In order to gain attention for the problem and deal with something that's regarded as a terrible human rights violation, we trot out statistics that often have no basis in fact," she said.
"In the World Cup in Germany and the Olympics in Athens, no increase in trafficking was found. There is no reason to believe South Africa will be any different," she said. - (Sapa, June 2010)