New EU Priorities on Trafficking in Human Beings: Time to recognise the contribution of sex worker rights organisations
Last week the European Commission presented the EU’s new priority actions for addressing trafficking in human beings, broadly combined under three themes: stepping up the fight against organised criminal networks, providing trafficked persons with better access to their rights, and intensifying a coordinated and consolidated response, both within and outside the EU.
Although the priorities aim to treat human trafficking in all sectors equally, there is an underlying focus on the sex industry as a site of exploitation, particularly of women and girls. This is not surprising, as the latest data on identified victims of trafficking in the EU shows that 67% were trafficked in the sex industry and 95% of those were women and girls. Given this focus on trafficking in the sex industry, and the stated need for a broad range of stakeholders to tackle it, the EU needs to recognise the contribution of one stakeholder that has so far been excluded: sex worker rights organisations.
This year the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) conducted research which documented the strategies that sex worker rights organisations employ to prevent and address violence, coercion, and exploitation in the sex industry, including instances of human trafficking. The research took place in seven countries around the world with at least one sex worker rights organisation participating from each country, and the final report will be published in February 2018.
While the organisations in the seven countries operate in different contexts, they fundamentally have the same approach to supporting women in the sex industry, including trafficked women. All of them respond to women’s needs by providing person-centred, holistic, and non-judgemental support. All of them run a place which serves as a low-threshold drop-in centre, a safe and discreet free space where women can come, establish friendships, and access a range of services, from language classes to support groups, counselling, legal advice, and health services. All organisations also provide information about prices, advertising, safety, allowed locations for sex work, immigration issues, and where to turn for help in case of violence and abuse.
In addition, the organisations conduct outreach to sex work sites, during which they listen, advise, intervene and refer women, as dictated by their individual needs. The research documented several instances where sex worker organisations noticed suspected victims of trafficking and assisted them in different ways – by calling the police, negotiating their release with the brothel owner/madam, or chasing the pimp away. What they all have in common, is that the solutions are not always obvious or conventional; in some cases sex workers or their organisations have to get creative in order to find the best, ‘first, do no harm’ response to the concrete situation.
We also documented how sex worker rights organisations do not attempt to keep women in sex work but, in fact, actively support those who wish to leave the industry for various reasons (including exploitative conditions). They do this by offering them English language classes or other skills courses and helping them navigate the available state social security and employment options.
Ultimately, sex worker rights organisations are not so different from anti-trafficking organisations. Just like anti-trafficking organisations, sex worker organisations provide information about rights and working conditions, and where to seek help in cases of rights violations. In anti-trafficking lingo this is called prevention of trafficking, awareness-raising, or empowerment. In cases of rights violations, like anti-trafficking organisations, sex worker organisations offer assistance with filing complaints and dealing with the police, courts and immigration authorities, meeting basic needs, psychosocial counselling, family mediation and return to the community, and help with finding a new job. In anti-trafficking programming all these are broadly referred to as reintegration or social inclusion services.
Despite this important work, sex worker rights organisations are largely unrecognised and even vilified by the anti-trafficking community. In some of the research countries, we found that the contribution of sex worker organisations for anti-trafficking work was recognised by at least certain individuals in the local police or anti-trafficking unit. However, we also documented several cases where sex worker organisations had tried to join their national anti-trafficking task force or NGO network, but were either not allowed to or had to withdraw due to hostility.
We have seen the same exclusion and hostility at the EU level too. Several GAATW members and partners, who are either sex worker rights organisations or anti-trafficking organisations with a strong pro-sex worker rights position, were rejected from the EU Civil Society Platform against trafficking in human beings. Although the official grounds for the rejection had nothing to do with sex workers’ rights, this is most likely the reason, given the current climate in the EU and the vilification of sex worker rights supporters at the highest political level.
If the EU is serious about combating human trafficking, especially the trafficking of women and girls in the sex industry, as it claims, it can’t keep ignoring, and actively excluding, those organisations whose first and foremost priority is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of everyone involved in prostitution. On the contrary, it needs to recognise sex workers, and the organisations that represent them, and consult them in the development of policies and implementation of initiatives that may affect their lives, as recommended earlier this year by the EU-funded research project DemandAT. After all, sex worker rights organisations have the most interest in keeping the industry free of coercion, violence, exploitation, and human trafficking.
The slogan of the European Commission’s anti-trafficking website is ‘Together against trafficking in human beings’. It is time to make ‘together’ a reality and start engaging meaningfully with sex worker rights organisations.
12 December 2017