Safeguarding the human rights and dignity of undocumented migrant sex workers

This blog post was written by PICUM’s Chair, Edel McGinley.

Undocumented migrants are part of the fabric of our communities across Europe. They grow, pick and cook our food, they build roads and houses and provide care for loved ones. This labour is the backbone of many countries. Being undocumented however, limits opportunities, and limits how and where people can work. Some undocumented migrants work as sex workers. As work is critical to survival and as more and more people fall into irregularity across Europe, more undocumented migrants will inevitably sell sexual services.

It is in this context that we at PICUM believe it is important to understand how best to protect and empower undocumented sex workers against violence, exploitation, harassment, theft, eviction and homelessness.

We recognise that diverse views exist on sex work, and that responses are contested and highly politicised.  At PICUM, we acknowledge the violence and abuses associated with the sex industry and we think that protecting sex workers’ rights is the best way to empower individuals and address those abuses.

PICUM has worked for eighteen years to address the impacts of policy frameworks which criminalise undocumented migrants. Our work tells us that without exception, policies that criminalise migrants and their work lead to more, not less, violence and exploitation. These types of repressive environments consistently undermine access to services, decent work and justice, and lead to increased human rights violations.

Over the last four years, we at PICUM have discussed the challenges facing migrant sex workers with organisations working with undocumented migrants selling sexual services, both within and outside of our membership, including organisations that are led by sex workers themselves. Workshops have been held at the last four General Assemblies and the Board of PICUM have considered the available evidence. Our paper ‘Safeguarding the human rights and dignity of undocumented migrant sex workers’ is a result of this process.

In our paper, we outline the harmful impact of the criminalisation of sex work and conclude that legal frameworks criminalising the purchase and facilitation of sex work impact negatively on undocumented sex workers. Criminalisation places power in the hands of exploitative managers, dangerous clients, and abusive police officers.

These harms are exacerbated if a sex worker has an irregular immigration status. Migrants and people of colour – cis and transgender migrant women of colour in particular – are disproportionately subject to police harassment and targeted for immigration enforcement, including as a result of anti-trafficking initiatives.

PICUM is now adding its voice to the call for the removal of all criminal and administrative prohibitions and penalties on sex work, against sex workers, clients and non-exploitative third parties, in order to protect and empower undocumented sex workers.

In doing so, we join a growing numbers of sex worker and anti-trafficking groups, health and human rights organisations and trade unions, including the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, the World AIDS Campaign, Médecins du monde – Doctors of the World, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), International Committee for the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, La Strada International, Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Transgender Europe (TGEU), ILGA Europe and the European AIDS Treatment Group to name a few.

We recognise that we live in a deeply unequal world and no one policy measure is sufficient.  A holistic approach is needed, including the combating of poverty and discrimination, ensuring access to social services, regularising undocumented migrants and upholding labour and housing rights for all.

Crucially – and this will continue to be the focus of our work – undocumented migrants, including sex workers, must have safe and equal access to health, housing, decent work and justice.

Decriminalisation will not solve all the challenges facing undocumented migrant sex workers, but is a vital step to support their empowerment, human rights and dignity.