Why the Home Office is screwing over migrant sex workers

Why the Home Office is screwing over migrant sex workers

The British government, whilst proclaiming a mantel of gender equality, is actually geared towards making the lives of working women intolerable. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Home Office’s approach to migrant sex workers who are often the subject to police violence; threatened with deportation, and struggle to secure access to decent shelter and basic services. In short, the Home Office is screwing migrant sex workers.

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Is prostitution legal?

In the UK, prostitution is legalised and there is a plurality of legislation that confirms this including case law from the UK Upper Tribunal as well as the European Court of Justice. According to Tilianu v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2010], a sex worker is a self-employed as an “independent provider of services”. Yet despite the raft of legislation safeguarding the rights of sex workers, police have been issuing notices threatening sex workers, claiming that they are not “economically active” and therefore are liable for deportation.

Who are the sex workers?

Contrary to popular perception, sex workers are, by and large, not trafficking victims. Time and time again politicians have relied on a debunked claim that 80% of women working in the sex industry are victims of trafficking; researchers have actually found that percentage is closer to less than 6%.

Instead, sex workers are more likely to be single mothers who are turning to prostitution and other forms of sex work to provide for their families. This has been a direct result of the government’s policies of austerity which has been widely panned by human rights groups as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty. In cities such as Doncaster and Sheffield, where the government have imposed benefit sanctions, there was a rise of 40% and 166% respectively in prostitution. Sex work appears more viable as it pays more than jobs in the social care sector such as nursing where workers are only paid £17,000.

Why the police aren’t helping!

In response to the popular misconception that sex workers are the victims of trafficking, the police have engaged in anti-trafficking raids whilst this sounds encouraging, there is a darker reality.

Researchers have found that these raids make it harder for women to come forwards to speak about exploitation, rape and other forms of violence and when they do the police often refuse to act. Even worse, the police worked in collaboration with immigration officials meaning that these victims who had come forwards were often subject to deportation orders.

Whilst human trafficking is a real issue, the police have remained remarkable ineffective at combatting it. The police led to massive operations known as “Pentameter” and “Pentameter 2” during which 822 raids were carried out in every county. This resulted in only 406 arrests, only 96 of which were related to trafficking and only 67 were charged.

Why raids are bad

One may argue that whilst these raids have been unsuccessful, there has been a limited success, right?

The issue is that this narrative completely obfuscates the real harm inflicted upon women. In December 2013, a mass raid was conducted in Soho, London, where 250 police offers stormed through doors and handcuffed women. One police office dragged a woman out whilst she was still in her underwear whilst the media took photos. No victims of trafficking were found. The women were then left in the middle of the streets.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant

Time and time again, the police have been shown inept and unwilling to properly tackling human trafficking.

In 2011, child victims who were forced to work as servants were finally compensated because the police consistently refused to take on their case. In 2009, 77 child victims of trafficking were sent to a care home and went missing over a period of two years. Only 4 children have been found but despite the continuous number of missing people, immigration authorities have worked with police to send children to this home.

In contrast, the best disinfectant is sunlight. Most victims of trafficking have been able to escape through the support of sex worker organisations and through their own efforts. It is only through decriminalisation and destigmatising sex work that we can help these victims.