“It Doesn’t Matter What Background You Have, Trafficking Goes On”

Though the focus of Homeless World Cup was the action on the pitch, there was plenty happening off the field to further raise awareness of the issues surrounding homelessness.

During the tournament in Mexico City, Stacey Hepburn of the Northern Ireland-based organisation No More Traffik (NMT) hosted a workshop outlining the work of the organisation committed to stopping human trafficking.

After outlining the link to protecting players from vulnerable backgrounds, how to be aware of the signs of trafficking, and methods of supporting and acting on those fears, Belfast-based Hepburn gave us some background to the organisation and her involvement in this tournament.

“I have no football background at all!” she said. “The hostel I worked in and Street Soccer Northern Ireland are based beside each other in Belfast, and Justin McMinn, who set up Street Soccer Northern Ireland, walked past our window one day and said ‘Stacey, we need more women for this team, will you please join us?’”

“I hadn’t kicked a ball since I was about five, but I joined in and went to training with the girls every week. Then, because of the role I have in the hostel with the residents, Justin asked me if I would do that role with the girls—so I went to Oslo (2017) with the team. When we came back, he asked if I’d co-ordinate the women’s team, so that’s how I got involved in the football side.”

With a long-held interest in the issue of human trafficking and modern-day slavery, Hepburn had earlier completed a course on the subject, then travelled to the Philippines for three months where she worked with people who had been trafficked and who were involved in prostitution.

Last year she travelled to Cambodia with McMinn, who does much work training frontline professionals. “I came home and was, like, yes this goes on in many different countries around the world but what can I do back home, what can I do to help here? I was still working in a homeless hostel in Belfast, and there was a realisation that homeless people are more vulnerable, they’re at huge risk of being trafficked.

“So we set up a presentation, emailed every homeless hostel in Northern Ireland and let them know that we would be providing free training for their staff—to raise awareness, advise them what to look out for and what they could do if they thought someone is being trafficked.

“That’s what I’ve been doing the past couple of months. We’ve had some really great feedback, and now I’m here, being able to present to people here in Mexico at this tournament, looking at how we can best protect and safeguard players on and off the pitch, to minimise that risk of them being trafficked.

“So although I have no background in football at all, for me it’s seeing how football impacts on the players, getting them out of their normal routine, their addictions, struggling with their mental health—when they’re on the pitch they’re able to leave that behind.”

Echoing the thrust of her presentation, Hepburn’s message to those involved in supporting women’s teams both here and with street football teams around the world is: “It’s just making sure that you’ve got good support around you so that when you do hear stories of awful things that are happening to people, you can tell people this is what’s going on and get it off your chest. You need to have a good support network around you who get it and who understand.

“At NMT we train the frontline professionals like social workers and police and underline that it doesn’t matter what background you have, trafficking goes on. Whatever kind of place of work you’re in, be aware. If you have suspicions, if you’re worried something may be going on, then take action.”

Human trafficking involves the acquiring, moving and exploiting of people for profit—often through force, threat or deception. It is estimated that 46 million people globally are enslaved. For more detailed information on NMT and how to access its expertise, go to nomoretraffik.com.

Words: Isobel Irvine
Image: Anita Milas