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My body is my piece of land

Stories of migrant sex workers often cast human smugglers as the villains, yet the biggest evil many migrants face is their hopeless debt in their home country.

Thailand. Roberto Trombetta/Flickr. CC (by-nc)

A Thai woman sits alone behind the blinds in a brothel in a forest in Northern Denmark. She’s waiting for customers. She’s been selling sex in Denmark for two years now. She has no legal papers. It’s hard and lonely work, but she earns well. When a car drives up the gravel track behind the house, she looks out through a crack in the blinds. She keeps an eye open for the police. She’s scared of being discovered and deported to Thailand.

Migration and migrant sex work very often are long-distance debt restructuring.

In her two years in Denmark, she’s taken her family out of a 20-year-long mire of debt. A hospital admission for her father suffering from cancer, a failed maize-farm project, a tractor, a new roof and gambling debts have resulted in one loan after the other.

I have known her family for several years and I drove around with her mother and brother in north-east Thailand as part of a research project about irregular migration of women to Europe. I saw how they could finally repay the family’s old and crippling debts with money earned by the daughter at the brothel in Denmark. There was also enough left over to buy a flat-screen television and a large new sofa. From Denmark, the daughter proudly followed our journey via Facetime.

Debt is the villain, not smuggling

Of course it’s true: human smuggling and trafficking can be brutal. Both can be violent, even deadly, and are good business in the migration market created by the EU migration policy. Smugglers earn money because in order to finance the journey to Europe and to repay the old loans, many migrant families take out yet more loans to pay for the smuggling.

Yet, although debt is a powerful motive for migration, debt is completely absent from the migration debate. Debt seems dry and boring compared with sensational stories of gruesome human smugglers and sex slaves. Nevertheless, the reality is that migration and migrant sex work very often are long-distance debt restructuring. Here we are talking about the millions of families in the global south trapped in a vicious circle of debt, not those fleeing bombs and conflict.

We’ve only got one life

Private debt – both related and unrelated to migration – has grown among the migrants who, as an anthropologist and migration researcher, I have been following for 15 years.

“Why do you borrow money?” I asked a young woman in Benin City, southern Nigeria, from where many make the journey to Europe to sell sex. “We haven’t got time to wait and save up like my grandparents in the olden days”, she explained. “We’ve only got one life and we want to get the most out of it”.

The frustrating problem is that not even the educated, yet unemployed middle classes in Nigeria can borrow money from a bank to start so much as the smallest of projects. In Thailand, I interviewed the manager of the local branch of one of Thailand’s largest banks. “We don’t lend money for migration. It’s an uncertain investment”, he said. “Neither do we lend money to people with seasonal work, day workers or the unemployed. They’re all unreliable payers”.

Yet, millions of people in the global south are seasonal workers, day workers, without a contract and unemployed. Therefore, when serious illness, a new roof, an essential scooter, or a business start-up demands cash, they have to resort the “no-questions-asked” policy in the private market; with interest rates of up to 100% and brutal debt collection methods. In Thailand, people watch in terror when the young men in anonymous crash helmets arrive at the village on their motorbikes. Everyone knows that they’ve come to collect unpaid debt.

The Microfinance Barometer 2016 confirms that private debt due to informal quick-loan companies, local big men, rich landowners, mafia, wealthy families and middle-men is growing explosively in the global south. The World Bank is also concerned. As it wrote in 2015, approximately 70% of micro, family-run businesses to slightly larger businesses have no access to borrow money on a formal and reasonable market. Therefore, they resort to private and black-market loans at extortionate rates of interest. The problem is particularly serious in Asia and Africa, from where most migrants to Europe originate.

Selling sex to keep the land

 “My body will get my family out of debt”, explains a Thai woman with false papers on her way to Denmark via Spain to sell sex. Her family owes money, but they still have a small piece of land. They could easily sell the land and repay all the debt. But, she continues, “it’s better to keep the land than to use it to repay our debt … My body is like a piece of land that I can take with me, but it’s falling in value all the time. Land in Thailand doesn’t”.

“My body will get my family out of debt”

If we are to understand migration, and perhaps implement more innovative policies in the area, we have to examine tiny details and rationalities like these. We have to understand the reasoning behind these pragmatic, at times seemingly cynical choices, when money is tight and interest rates are extortionate.

Migrants are taking ever greater risks to release themselves or their families from the clutches of debt. The deeper underground a woman lives, for example working alone in a brothel so that she can have all the customers for herself, the more she earns. Working in Europe’s red-light district means avoiding the police and keeping below the radar. If you owe money and are afraid of being deported, you have to earn as much as possible and as fast as possible; before things go wrong. Even if this means sitting alone in a brothel in a forest or crossing the Mediterranean in an unseaworthy boat. 

Debt policy is migration policy

What does other people’s debt have to do with us? We’ve got enough debt ourselves, and they made their own choice to borrow the money in the first place. Unfortunately, families’ debt in the global south increasingly has a lot to do with the EU, the United States and other migrant receiving countries. Debt and migration are linked, as is more than apparent when migrants cross the border to sell sex in a brothel in a forest somewhere in Europe.

In other words, debt and bank policy are migration policy. Without addressing the former the root causes of the latter cannot be altered. Intercepting the smugglers and planning an anti-trafficking awareness campaign only treats the symptoms. Even criminalising the purchase of sex has a negligible effect on the prevalence of migrant prostitution. Why? These surface-level initiatives don’t even attempt to reach the root cause of the phenomenon: unemployment and debt.

Some programmes in Thailand, for reasons of migration or otherwise, do target debt. In order to avoid the clutches of fast consumer loans, the very poorest can take out interest-free loans from the government to buy agricultural machinery and sowing seed. So far this has been small-scale and the effects cannot easily be measured, but it does show that the home countries are well aware that debt is often a trigger.

Looking at migration as a consequence of debt in a variety of scenarios raises many questions. Could we work out large-scale, debt-restructuring models for migrant families that avoid the pitfalls of micro-loans? Could states foster better migration policies and healthier loans in the areas migrants originate, serving as state guarantor so people without long term job contracts could borrow money at non-extortionate rates?

Could the EU bring as much weight to bear against unscrupulous loan sharks in Europe and overseas as it has against human smugglers since 2012? The millions of Euros spent on surveilling smugglers might be put to better use investigating illegal money lending and, in the worst cases, protecting witnesses to break the cycle of fear, intimidation and even violence that trap families in debt and migration. Asking how we might change the structural factors constraining migrants’ lives, such that they may choose to migrate but have viable alternatives to doing so, puts migrants’ well-being centre stage while fostering healthier migration policies at the same time.

Private debt is often kept secret; it is complex, shameful and sometimes criminal. Therefore, to deal with debt and migration in tandem will require nuanced, sensitive, and innovative solutions. Because debt migration won’t go away on its own. As a Thai woman explained: “We’re getting much better at paying back our debt, because more of us are going to Europe”.

About the author

Dr. Sine Plambech is a Researcher, Anthropologist and Film Director working on irregular migration, trafficking, sex work, and documentary filmmaking. She is based in Copenhagen and New York at the Danish Institute for International Studie’s Department of Migration, Finance & Aid and as Adjunct Professor at Barnard – Department of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Columbia University.  She combines her academic work with directing documentaries, most recently Becky’s Journey. This has so far resulted in four award winning documentaries on the topics of international migration, sex work and human trafficking. Follow her on Twitter @sineplambech.


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