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If you control movement, you control sex workers

Sex work in Switzerland isn’t in itself illegal, but for irregular migrants working in the industry that is little comfort.

Rebecca Angelini works at FIZ, a Swiss NGO specialising in the trafficking of women and women’s migration issues more generally. BTS caught up with her at the conference ‘Human trafficking, forced labour and modern slavery: understanding popular narratives and planning strategic action’, held in August 2017 in Bangkok by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, to discuss the role that ‘trafficking’ plays in her broader goal of helping women and specifically sex workers to access their rights.

Rebecca Angelini: FIZ is a very old and typical NGO. We started our work over 30 years ago in 1985. It actually started with migrant women from the Philippines that were heavily exploited in Switzerland. Back then there were a lot of migrant women coming to Switzerland and being exploited at home or in the workplace. We were the first to start to address this issue. We started with advocacy work, and then more and more migrant women approached us with their issues, and questions, and problems, so we decided to build up a counselling centre for migrant women to support them in their daily issues.

Our work has revolved around exploitation and violence against women. Our offer was pretty broad and, over time, a new concept started to come in: this framework that was called ‘human trafficking’. We began to focus more on that concept, which meant that we split our services and now have two outreach programmes. One is specialised in human trafficking and offers direct services to trafficked women. The other is a counselling centre for migrant women, and there we mainly support sex workers with their issues. We still do a lot of advocacy work, political work, and public relations, because while we are convinced that it is important to have direct assistance for migrant women, it's also important to address the structures that are causing the situations that they're facing.

Prabha Kotiswaran (oD): So if you were to give the anti-trafficking framework a score card for the past 20 years, what would you say? What are the key points at which the anti-trafficking framework has intervened in Switzerland, and what have been the consequences? Do you think, on balance, that's it has been a beneficial framework?

Rebecca: We had big hopes with this concept, because at the beginning we thought that it was very important that this issue be addressed – that people actually talk about these severe forms of exploitation. Looking back, it clear that for one group the situation has improved. When we are talking about migrant women who are in situations of trafficking, Switzerland has implemented legislation specialised on this issue. We have ratified all the important protocols. We have special provisions for victims of human trafficking in our migration law, and we have a victim support act. So, within the framework of human trafficking, we have been able to improve access to support and justice for migrant women that are in situations of severe exploitation.

But what we also see is that, for another big group of migrant women, the situation has worsened. I can't really say that it is because of the human trafficking framework. But we have seen that it has negative effects on other groups of migrant women, and that it has turned out to be a framework that is actually a lot about controlling the movement of migrant women, controlling the work of migrant women. We see this very clearly with sex workers.

The human trafficking framework has turned out to be a lot about controlling the movement of migrant women.

Prabha (oD): Could you tell us a little bit about some of the salient victories over the period of your engagement with the anti-trafficking discourse? Were there any high points that you want to share with us in terms of the women that you have been able to assist?

Rebecca: One particularity about Switzerland is that we're a federal state, so everything which is important to migrant women suffering from human trafficking is implemented at the regional level – as we call it the cantonal level.

This has been challenging for us, because we could not address the issue just at the national level. That would not help because, for example, the migration law or the criminal law is implemented at the cantonal level – and we have 26 cantons in Switzerland. We realised pretty quickly that it's not possible to do this as an organisation. We’re pretty small. Now we're 25 women, but still, with our resources it was impossible to address the issue in every single region of our country.

We have been progressing in some cantons where we have been active. We were able to convince the stakeholders, including governmental stakeholders, to engage in the issue. In these cantons we have seen a lot of progress, and the governments there have been sensitised. We have specialised governmental authorities that are dealing with the issue, and that are actually following a victim-centred approach. This is major progress.

I would say this federal system is our main challenge. It creates a huge difference for migrant women, as it really depends on where they are being exploited. If they're exploited in a canton where the police are sensitised, for example, they have a chance to access support. In other cantons it’s worse.

Jennifer C./flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Prabha (oD): What's the Swiss law and policy on sex work in general, and how have Swiss courts understood the phrase ‘exploitation’ in prostitution matters?

We are lucky that we're in a country where the official view is that there is a difference between sex work and human trafficking. So not all sex workers are considered victims of exploitation. That is very important for us, and we have done a lot of advocacy in collaboration with other NGOs in order to make sure that we are not too influenced by other ideas of how to deal with sex work. So we're lucky, but that doesn't automatically mean that the government is dealing with the issue of sex work or human trafficking with a more rights-based or victim-centred approach.

The regulations on sex work are just extremely complex, and once again it depends on the canton for how they deal with sex work. Even though it's legal work at national level, every canton regulates it differently. That means that the process to obtain a legal work permit in the sex industry is very complex and bureaucratic, and it creates a system that is split in two groups. For one group it's possible to obtain a work permit and work legally as a sex worker. But for a big group of women the process is just too complex and they can't obtain a legal work permit. That happens most of the time, and the most vulnerable sex workers are the ones who will remain working underground or without a permit. it’s a type of criminalisation through the back door.

About the author

Rebecca Angelini works at FIZ, a Swiss NGO specialising in the trafficking of women and women’s migration issues more generally.


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