Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Rights not rescue for migrant sex workers

The criminalisation of clients does nothing to protect sex workers from police harassment, border guards, racism, transphobia, or sexual assault. That’s a problem.

Luca Stevenson International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe
14 May 2019, 7.00am
Sex workers march in London in March 2018.
juno mac/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-nd)

The sex workers’ rights movement has, in the last few years, taken an unprecedented leap in visibility and recognition. Global organisations such as Amnesty International, the World Health Organization and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association have publicly supported sex workers’ rights. Prominent politicians such as the president of South Africa have called for decriminalisation. Particularly with regard to legal reform, the demands of sex workers have reached a tipping point.

Paradoxically, support has also increased for those who oppose sex workers’ rights in the belief that they exacerbate gender inequality and lead to trafficking. This has been particularly true in the policy-making arena. Due to the well-funded advocacy of these abolitionist groups, political support for the ‘Swedish model’, which criminalises the clients of sex workers but not the sale of sex itself, has continued to grow.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Sweden’s proclaimed flagship feminist law, which has, since 1999, taken root in many other parts of Europe and the world. Despite the negative impact of this law on sex workers, and particularly on migrant sex workers in an increasingly xenophobic Europe, Sweden and France are now united in promoting the model globally.

Resisting a model that punishes rather than protects

In the face of this abolitionist offensive, new sex worker collectives have sprung up alongside longstanding organisations to actively and vocally defend sex workers’ interests. These interests can vary greatly. One effect of the movement’s recent growth and diversification has been that we now know much more about the experiences and needs of some of the most marginalised sex workers in the world, such as migrant, black, trans, Roma and disabled sex workers. Conversations within the movement are now more nuanced and have moved well beyond the basic unifying slogans of ‘Sex work is work’. Discussions on issues such as exploitation at work, repressive migration control, economic and gender inequality, homo- and transphobia, ableism, and racism are becoming integral parts of the sex workers’ rights movement. These issues can impact sex workers every bit as much as the criminalisation of their work. This is nowhere more evident than in the intersecting issues and needs of migrant sex workers.

How do a Nigerian woman working the streets of Milan, a trans woman from Mexico advertising online in Barcelona, and a Syrian refugee boy selling sex to survive in a park in Athens compare?

‘Migrant sex worker’ is an umbrella term that, in Europe, can include EU citizens from other member states with the legal right to live and work in any EU country; undocumented migrants without legal permission to stay and work; refugees and asylum seekers; and potentially those who are currently classified as victims of trafficking. They are no monolithic group, and talking about them as such ignores the diversity and complexity of living and working conditions experienced by those who, due to personal choice, limited options, chance opportunity, or coercion, are selling sex outside their country of citizenship.

How do the needs of a Nigerian woman working the streets of Milan, a trans woman from Mexico advertising online in Barcelona, a Romanian mother in a ‘pop-up brothel’ in London, and a Syrian refugee boy selling sex to survive in a park in Athens compare? Too often, the criminalisation of sex work and migration combines with institutionalised racism and oppressive measures against issues like homelessness or trans identities to hit migrant sex workers in several ways at once. Their lives are marked by police repression, third party exploitation, fear of deportation, and wider human rights violations – a hostile environment that they seek to navigate with as much agency, courage and strength as they can muster. Migrant sex workers must provide for themselves and their families, and just like everyone else they try to improve their lives with the options available to them. However, these nuanced realities are rarely represented and acknowledged. The needs of migrant sex workers are instead neglected or ignored.

Rights not rescue

The International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) campaigns and organises to amplify the voices of migrant sex workers in Europe. Our network has developed resources such as briefing papers, policy briefs and films on the issues faced by migrant sex workers. We have also coordinated trainings and seminars to strengthen the capacities of migrant sex workers and to advocate for rights-based policies and laws. Now, with support from the Oak Foundation, we are proud to launch the ‘RnR: Rights not Rescue’ project. This new initiative, which will run through to the end of 2020, aims to empower migrant sex workers to fight trafficking and exploitation in the sex industry.

What constitutes decent work in sex work?

RnR seeks to involve sex workers in areas of policy-making from which they have historically been excluded. Inserting sex worker voices into the arenas of migration, anti-trafficking and gender equality is our highest priority, as is the development of a joint critical framework on these fields from the sex worker movement’s perspective. Crucial questions have already been raised by migrant sex workers at the first meeting of the project. What constitutes decent work in sex work? How could the movement reimagine migration policies to improve the lives of asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants? How can sex workers mitigate the harmful effects of anti-trafficking measures? What sort of social and legal support could be offered to those suffering from exploitation and abuse? Over the next two years we will seek to answer these and many other questions.

Throughout this project ICRSE will partner with openDemocracy/Beyond Trafficking and Slavery to offer a series of articles from sex workers’ rights activists, researchers, and migrant and anti-trafficking advocates. These pieces will help educate readers, activists and policy-makers on the realities faced by migrant sex workers in Europe. They will share the latest evidence on the impact of criminalisation of sex work and migration and foster conversations on how to combat exploitation within the industry. ICRSE also hopes to move beyond the ‘sex work is not trafficking’ framing by problematising the trafficking framework itself, a largely unexplored topic in the sex worker movement.


This article has been developed by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) as part of its 'RnR- Rights not Rescue’ project, aiming to empower migrant sex workers in tackling exploitation and trafficking in the sex industry. The programme, funded by OAK Foundation, brings together sex workers and allies from sex workers' rights organisations in 10 European countries for exchange, national and European advocacy and knowledge generation. For more details about the project, check the ICRSE website:

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