When reports surfaced in 2014 that asylum-seekers in Ireland had started selling sex because they were unable to survive on the cash allowances given by reception centres, the country’s Minister of Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, was quick to order an investigation into the allegations and told Irish radio that she was considering introducing a law that would criminalise the buying of sex.
Noting that asylum-seekers staying in reception centres were given just €20 a week at the time, Luca Stevenson, coordinator of the International Committee for the Rights of Sex workers in Europe (ICRSE), says that Fitzgerald’s response ignored the structural conditions that push women to start selling their bodies in the first place.
Rather than prosecuting those who paid the women to perform sexual services, he said: “You need to give more money to asylum-seekers, migrants and refugees so that they don’t have to sell sex in the first place.”
Stevenson’s comments were made at a recent seminar organised by the ICRSE in Brussels, Belgium on the rights violations against sex workers that take place across Europe and Central Asia.
Attended by sex workers, European Union officials and women’s rights organisations, it was the first time that migrant sex workers living and working across Europe have come together “to voice their needs, concerns and demands”.
“In the UK and many others places, cuts and austerity are driving women into prostitution – that’s the reality,” says Stevenson, who is also a sex worker. “And what we hear is that our only way of survival, by selling sexual services, should be criminalised, leaving us even more destitute,” he said.
The majority of sex workers in Europe today are migrants, refugees and asylum seekers; according to figures cited by the ICRSE, migrants account for 65 per cent of sex workers in western Europe.
Human rights advocates are now warning that these migrant sex workers – who are often unable to access the formal labour market due to their undocumented status – are the ones most at risk from the enforcement of laws that prohibit the selling or buying of sex.
Many of the basic human rights that are covered by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union – such as the right to employment, to housing, to health and to be free from violence – are being violated say advocates, often with scarcely any options for redress.
Impact of the refugee crisis
The European refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016, and the policies that European Union institutions and national lawmakers have adopted in response, a new ICRSE briefing paper notes, have further exacerbated rights violations against migrant sex workers, while policies that criminalise paid sex are specifically targeting and endangering migrants who sell sex.
Sabrina Sanchez, a sex worker who migrated from Mexico to Spain, said that the violation of housing rights is particularly notable, with many landlords demanding employment contracts before letting apartments.
“Of course, as a sex worker you don’t have any of this, so if you want to work and live in a place, you have to rent per week, with no contract, no guarantee of not being kicked out, and it’s like two or three times the market price,” she said.
Catherine Murphy, a policy advisor at Amnesty International, told Equal Times that the measure of a country’s anti-sex work and anti-trafficking law enforcement ‘successes’ are deeply flawed.
“Often, the dramatic reduction of visible sex work or migrant sex work is applauded,” she said. “But what’s happening to achieve that is significant and targeted human rights violations.”
Many of the sex workers and NGO representatives present at the ICRSE seminar called on lawmakers to give refugees and migrants more economic opportunities. They also urged for an end to the deportation of migrant sex workers, as well as better access to healthcare and legal protection, so that no one has to sell sex to survive.
“Migrant sex workers are working to support their children, families, and sometimes entire communities, and all the thanks that they get is criminalisation and deportation,” said Paulina Nicol, a Romanian sex worker with the UK-based English Collective of Prostitutes.
“We want migrant sex workers to be seen and understood, to be acknowledged as migrant workers,” said Kemal Ordek from Kırmızı Şemsiye, a Turkish sex worker-led organisation.
The issue of deportation is particularly relevant in Turkey, a country which has one of the largest refugee and migrant populations in the world, including an estimated 2.7 million Syrians. Ordek said the Turkish government recently deported Turkmen sex workers who were later killed in honor crimes in Turkmenistan.
Different approaches to sex work
The issues faced by migrant sex workers offer a microcosm of the larger, heated debate around prostitution, and the different approaches EU countries have adopted to reduce the demand for the selling of sex.
Many European countries, such as Sweden and Norway, aim to discourage sex work by making it punishable by law to pay for sex rather than penalising those who sell sex.
However, sex worker movements globally say this approach does not work. Instead, they demand the full decriminalisation of sex work. Anything else harms sex workers, they say – and migrant sex workers in particular – leaving them at even greater risk of violence and abuse, both by law enforcement and clients.
Advocates are calling on governments to do everything they can to protect the human rights of sex workers, irrespective of their nationality or legal status.
“All these laws that they create that are supposed to protect women. All they do is increase violence against us. They leave us without tools to defend ourselves,” says Paula Ezkerra, a sex worker and member of Asamblea de Activistas pro Derechos sobre el Trabajo Sexual (the Assembly of Activists for Rights on Sex Work) based in Barcelona, Spain.
Major human rights organisations such Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organization and several other United Nations agencies such as UN Women and the UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work are also calling for the decriminalisation of sex work, noting that decriminalisation guarantees better working conditions, and reduces the social vulnerability and marginalisation of sex workers.
In April of this year, France introduced a new law, modelled after Scandinavian legislation, which made brothels and pimping illegal. The French government has said the law will help address trafficking concerns, citing estimates that 90 per cent of the country’s 20,000 to 40,000 sex workers are victims of Nigerian, Chinese and Romanian trafficking networks.
Advocates, however, say that this law is working to the detriment of the country’s most vulnerable, typically street-based sex workers.
Nathalie Simonnot, deputy director of the Médecins du Monde International Network and co-founder of the Paris-based sex worker organisation Lotus Bus, gives the example of Chinese sex workers. She says they have lost their longstanding and generally older clientele as they are now afraid of being fined by the police.
As a result, the new law is forcing women to work with pimps and brothel owners to secure clients, forcing them to give up a cut of their money. “This wasn’t the case before,” Simonnot said. “They got 100 per cent of the money they earned.”
The drop in clients and their forced reliance on third parties has forced the sex workers to work longer hours and at night, which they previously considered too dangerous. They also have to work longer hours for less money, which means they are able to send less money in remittances to their families and relatives in China.
Existing anti-trafficking laws are appropriate and sufficient to combat human trafficking, she said. “We shouldn’t make specific laws for sex workers because they always end up working against sex workers.”