On 14 June, the UEFA Euro 2024 football tournament will kick off in Munich. Over four weeks, millions of fans from around the world will flock to the German cities where matches will be played. Fans will be hoping for another Sommermärchen, or fairytale summer, the likes of which the country last experienced when it hosted the 2006 FIFA World Cup. However, will this mass influx of supporters, most of whom are expected to be male, also lead to a rise in sex trafficking to Germany? 

Similar concerns were raised in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup in 2006, when it was estimated that up to 40 000 women might be trafficked into Germany – a figure widely reported in the media, but later found to be grossly inflated. There is little evidence of a link between major sporting events and increased levels of human trafficking for sexual purposes, with few exceptions. Over the course of the 2006 World Cup, authorities reported only five cases of trafficking directly linked to the tournament out of 33 criminal investigations. However, such statistics may mask the true scale of the risk.  

Although an increase in sex trafficking offences could not be confirmed, German authorities did note a higher number of sex workers during the World Cup. One outreach worker in Berlin said that the World Cup had seen influxes of Eastern European sex workers, with local sex workers becoming the minority.  

For this year’s tournament, some appear to have already spotted an opportunity to promote sex work alongside football. An online advertisement for a brothel near Dortmund, for example, shows a woman holding a football and inviting customers to ‘live the fairytale summer’. The brothel offers ‘all games, all goals, all girls 18+’.    

Germany and sex trafficking  

Germany is a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking for sexual exploitation, although the country has put in place a number of initiatives to combat it. Sex work has been legal in Germany since 2002, and stricter regulation introduced in 2016 was designed to reduce the sector’s vulnerability to traffickers and exploitation. In the US Department of State’s annual assessment on trafficking in persons, Germany is regularly ranked as a tier 1 country, which means it fully meets the ‘minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking’. Civil society also plays a key role in the prevention of human trafficking and in supporting victims.  

Germany was highly responsive to the perceived risks around the 2006 World Cup, with law enforcement on alert and increased surveillance of brothels and street sex work. During the tournament, several awareness-raising campaigns were funded, emergency hotlines were put online and there was a high level of cooperation between NGOs, authorities and churches.  

Nevertheless, despite such measures during a high-profile sports event, human trafficking remains a serious issue in the country. According to the 2023 Organized Crime Index, it is one of the most pervasive criminal markets in Germany. With a score of 6 out of 10, Germany ranks higher than the European average for this criminal market (5.13) and second in Western Europe, tied with France. 

The legality of sex work in Germany should, in theory, act as a countermeasure to the criminal exploitation of the sector, but recent trends suggest that there are still opportunities for traffickers to exploit. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a growing trend to move sex workers off the streets into so-called ‘apartment brothels’, making their exploitation harder to detect.  

Moreover, most victims of human trafficking are not officially recorded in the prostitution register. In 2022, only 16 per cent of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation were actually registered. The city of Berlin officially reports 2 055 legally registered sex workers as of August 2023, a figure that is believed to be a third or even a quarter of the true total 

The majority of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation have German passports, followed by Bulgarian and Romanian nationals. This mirrors the traffickers’ nationalities: according to data from 2022, these are led by German criminals, followed by Bulgarian and Romanian nationals, with roughly 85 per cent of perpetrators being male. Together with Germany, Romania is in the group of countries with the highest levels of human trafficking in Europe, as measured by the 2023 Organized Crime Index.  

Sex workers from south-eastern Europe operate in an environment where the line between choice, necessity and coercion is often blurred. The German term Armutsprostitution (poverty prostitution) refers to Bulgarian, Hungarian and Romanian sex workers from low-income backgrounds who are most often found in street prostitution. Drug use is widespread among these workers and rates of sexually transmittable diseases are estimated to be high. The women often work in a culture of silence and, according to local NGOs, intimidation and fear. South-eastern European sex workers are said to be reluctant to seek help, even in medical emergencies, or to engage with local authorities.  

As a result, the authorities face major difficulties in investigating cases of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, with the main obstacles being the impermeability of the sector and the difficulty in distinguishing legal sex work from sexual exploitation, and migration from human trafficking.  

On the streets of Berlin 

In the weeks leading up to Euro 2024, research in Berlin did not confirm an increase in the incidence of sex trafficking into Germany. One sex worker interviewed even refuted the suggested link between the upcoming tournament and increased demand for services, saying that her work was more seasonal: ‘That has nothing to do with it. The only change is in the winter – that’s when I have more clients.’ Local sex workers have not generally noticed an increase in the number of active sex workers, although this may change when millions of fans begin to arrive in the country.   

Although experts argue that events like Euro are too short to make the logistical effort worthwhile, human trafficking in the continent tends to be intraregional, reducing potential logistical costs and immigration obstacles. On 14 June, flight tickets from Bucharest to Berlin are available for around €50. Not surprisingly, 90% of all victims of human trafficking within Europe are European citizens.   

Given the shift in the sex industry to less visible settings, the EU’s open migration regulation and the culture of secrecy in the sector, gathering data on sex trafficking and exploitation requires a continuous research effort. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s recently established Observatory on Organized Crime in Europe plans to investigate further intraregional patterns of sex trafficking. 

As millions of football fans descend on the country over the course of the tournament, the signs are that demand for affordable sexual services will increase. As Germany steps up its response to organized crime, additional resources should be directed towards combating human trafficking and sexual exploitation. 

This analysis is part of the GI-TOC’s series of articles delving into the results of the Global Organized Crime Index. The series explores the Index’s findings and their effects on policymaking, anti-organized crime measures and analyses from a thematic or regional perspective.