Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

We speak but you don’t listen: migrant sex worker organising at the border

The sex workers’ movement demands full decriminalisation of sex work, but this will only help sex workers already permitted to work unless migrants are also provided with labour and residence rights.

Ava Caradonna x:talk project
1 March 2016


Photo by Feminist Fightback. Used with permission, all rights reserved.

On 11 August 2015, Amnesty International passed a resolution calling for the decriminalisation of sex work. It was a sweet summer victory that was the result of years of sex worker organising. This hard won and well fought for achievement inspired a tremendous sense of victory within the sex worker movement as well as howls of protest from what Laura Agustin terms the ‘rescue industry’ and their misguided abolitionist allies.

However the Amnesty resolution, as well as most other decriminalisation policies, will have little or no positive effect on our lives as migrant sex workers. In fact, certain short cuts towards such a goal might inadvertently turn us into collateral damage. What is clear is that we have reached a historical moment, one in which the political significance of sex worker rights has finally started to gain momentum and traction. This is why it is crucial that we, as migrant sex workers, address some of the conflicts of interest between the aims and strategies of the sex workers’ movement as they are currently configured and the strategies and realities of migrant sex workers themselves. In other words, there is a considerable distance in our experiences of criminalisation and stigma that doesn’t afford the majority of migrant sex workers a smooth or safe landing into a world of regulated and legal sex work.

Sex work is work?

There is no doubt that the Amnesty resolution furthers the aims of the sex workers’ movement for the full decriminalisation of sex work. The loudest opposition to decriminalisation is the rescue industry: composed of abolitionists who promote the 'Swedish model' and individuals and organisations who employ 'anti-trafficking' discourses without ever challenging the power structures that enable the trafficking and exploitation of workers. Most abolitionists believe that sex workers have 'false consciousness' as a result of trauma either leading to sex work or sustained while working. They view our work as one in which we are repeatedly raped. Sex work must be rape, according to the abolitionist logic, because no one can consent to selling sex. We are criminalised, arrested, and rescued for ‘our own good’. Much of our time as activists is spent trying to dispel the notion that sex workers are always already victims, in order to assert our agency. We want to be clear: if you come from a situation of poverty, the only thing you have to survive is your body. We maintain that while choice under capitalism is a fictional concept, this does not entitle anyone to deny us our ability to express our demands and improve our situations. It is useful to distinguish between the terms choice and agency. The former insinuates a fictional context in which we all have 'equal' options in life and unlimited access to resources. The latter recognises our capability to make plans, to have strategies, and to act within a limiting structure. Our lived experience as well as considerable academic evidence shows that the rescue industry is causing serious harm to the sex worker movement and exposing individual sex workers to increased risk, arrest, and stigma.

As migrant sex workers we are targeted both as sex workers and as migrants. We share all the oppressions of national or settled sex workers, but not all the proposed solutions. Of course the category of ‘migrant sex worker’ is misleading, as we have many different stories and come from multiple situations. For some of us, even the main demand of the sex workers’ movement to recognise sex work as work is a double-edged sword. For migrants the question of work, to undertake any work, is often considered the most heinous crime against the state that we can commit. If we are caught in the act of working, our best immediate survival strategy is to argue that we were NOT working and that we were in fact coerced. To put it simply, if you are defined as a trafficked woman then you have some rights and access to resources, if you are defined as a migrant sex worker you don't.


Used with permission from

If you are either an undocumented migrant or a documented visitor / migrant with no permission to work in the UK and no recourse to public funds, and are busted for sex work, you will be deported and often banned from re-entering the country or the entire EU. You will have no access to legal aid, you will be incarcerated, and you will be exposed to threats and sometimes violence from the police. Even if you are a migrant sex worker with short or long term permission to work in the UK, it is quite possible that you could lose this coveted status because engaging in sex work can be interpreted as a violation of the ‘good character’ clause of UK immigration laws.

Full decriminalisation of sex work would put one class of migrant sex workers – those already allowed to work in the UK – in a much-improved position. This only holds, however, if such change was accompanied by anti-discrimination legislation and anti-stigma education strong enough to prevent immigration authorities from revoking our status on account of deviance or suspected anti-social tendencies. But even such a progressive legislative and political u-turn on prostitution polices would leave undocumented migrant sex workers, or migrant sex workers without work permits, in a very similar position to the one we occupy today: excluded from access to justice, exposed to violence and blackmail, and faced with limited survival options.

Like aid from a war plane

At the moment the sex workers’ movement can't offer much to a migrant worker targeted by the authorities. We do not have the resources at our disposal that the rescue industry does. However, if you are categorised as a trafficked woman, you have recourse to a comparatively (if still inadequate) well-funded framework of support and some legal prospects. You will not be instantly removed. You will have access to legal aid – one of the only few categories of migrants in the UK still entitled to this nearly eradicated service. You will have access to temporary housing and sustenance, mental health support, and even professional training. In some circumstances you may even be able to file an asylum claim. While your chances to win are ridiculously slim, this will buy you time before your eventual displacement. The rescue industry works within the normative border regime and offers certain migrant sex workers with their backs against the wall some more options.


Photo by Feminist Fightback. Used with permission, all rights reserved.

However as a strategy it is a fraught one, as it is really difficult to fit all the criteria. If you want to fight for your papers through this route, you have little possibility to do so successfully. You have to be consistent in your story no matter how many times you have to repeat it, and each agency will check. If you are a migrant sex worker there is a strong possibility that one day you will be raided and, in most cases, you will have nothing to lose in trying to exploit the anti-trafficking law. But it is hard to achieve a positive outcome. The irony, of course, is that anti-trafficking laws allow the police to raid houses, flats, etc. when there is a suspicion of trafficking, so the same law that you may try to exploit is the reason why you were incarcerated in the first place.

In our organising efforts in workplaces we hardly ever meet sex workers without documents nowadays, and certainly not in the numbers that we used to. Migrant sex workers are missing from more than the agenda of the political debate about sex workers. They are largely missing from public life in London. Since the police raids that occurred in the lead up to the London Olympics, followed by the raids on Soho during Operation Companion in December 2013, flats were shut down and undocumented migrants were forced underground. The ongoing police repression has pushed more and more people into precarious and dangerous situations.

So let’s be clear: the rescue industry's aid is like provision parcels dropped over a freshly bombed zone. Most of us know that such food parcels are charity you would not have needed before your benefactor made you destitute. We know that they are not enough because they are not intended to restore your self-sufficiency. We know that they are offered free of charge at an extortionate price. But many also know that these toxic provisions may be the only tangible sustenance around. And if you try shooting the planes out of your sky, the offensive parcels will either be withheld, or exchanged for cluster bombs. As an immediate survival strategy, sometimes being a victim is more effective than being a freedom fighter.

This article is published as part of the 'Sex workers speak: who listens?' series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance' (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution.

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