Exclusive: ‘For migrant workers, everything is compounded – the sexism, the criminalisation and the racism and then the hostile immigration environment’
Sex workers in the UK are being illegally targeted for deportations and subjected to harassment and attacks because of a Brexit-inspired culture of discrimination against foreigners, campaigners have claimed.
A dossier compiled by the campaign group English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) includes examples of women being targeted by police for arrest and deportation despite having the right to remain in Britain, and police dismissing reports of violence against women.
Liliana Gashi, a spokesperson for the group, said: “Since the Brexit vote, racist attacks on migrant sex workers have gone up, particularly against those of us who work on the street. We work for a living, like other workers, and our families and sometimes whole communities depend on the money we earn.
“How can the police then say we are not workers? We ask that trade unions and others concerned with the rights of workers and migrants help us establish that sex work is work so we can organise alongside other workers for protection from exploitation and abuse.”
The ECP says sex workers are disadvantaged and discriminated against because the trade is not recognised as work in the UK – noting many people, therefore, do not have the documentation, including the record of waged work, that is needed to establish a right to stay in the UK.
It is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex from each other in the UK, but soliciting and sex workers banding together as a group are illegal.
Niki Adams, another spokesperson for the ECP, said arrests and deportations of EU migrant sex workers had been rising in the build up to and since the Brexit referendum in June 2016.
“Migrant sex workers from EU countries like Romania, Albania and Poland do have the right to work in the UK but they have been picked up and deported,” she said.
“The police were doing things like confiscating a woman’s travel documents or passport and saying, ‘We will only give this back to you if you produce a one-way ticket to Romania’. They took advantage of the fact there was a lot of racism against migrant people generally.
“It was very worrying to learn of a couple of sex workers on the street being threatened by very violent gangsters and a custody sergeant say, ‘Are you telling me you are a prostitute? Because if so, I’m going to arrest you’. For migrant workers, everything is compounded – the sexism, the criminalisation and the racism, and then the hostile immigration environment.”
The dossier cites the example of an anonymous Romanian sex worker who was arrested and charged for loitering and soliciting and taken from the court to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. The woman faced deportation for being a “persistent offender” because between April 2017 and June 2018 she was convicted six times of loitering and soliciting.
She had fled Romania because of domestic violence and was working to support her two children and cover health costs for her sister and mother who were both unwell, according to the ECP. The group said that as a victim of violence she should not have been detained because Home Office guidelines stipulate that vulnerable women should not be held.
After three weeks, the organisation said, she could not endure conditions in detention and the prospect of fighting her case so decided to go back to Romania.
The ECP, which found her a lawyer to fight her case, said: “Her detention sets a dangerous precedent as police will be encouraged to round up migrant sex workers for multiple arrests and convictions, label them persistent offenders and push through deportation orders.”
“Women’s hard work providing an income to support people at a time of rising poverty, homelessness and even destitution is dismissed and disparaged,” the organisation says in its dossier. “Many migrant women are kept out of other jobs by racism, endemic low wages, lack of employment rights and other abuses so that prostitution becomes one of the only viable economic options for survival.”
The organisation’s dossier, called “Sex workers are getting screwed by Brexit”, includes 20 cases of some of the women in their network who claim to have been targeted by police and immigration officials over the past five years and who, in some cases, have successfully defeated attempts to deport them.
The organisation has looked into legal rulings and found that sex workers can claim self-employed status which entitles women to reside in the UK. They have produced letters and a rights sheet which have been widely distributed on the street and in premises.
A spokesperson for Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement said: “Fear of arrest for soliciting or brothel-keeping is magnified for migrants who may also face deportation. The hostile climate fuelled by Brexit has, without a doubt, allowed police to enforce against sex workers in an increasingly racist manner.”
The spokesperson said they had spoken to sex workers in Yarl’s Wood who had been “working legally but were deported after being told they weren’t exercising their EU treaty rights, as sex work is not ‘real work’”.
They added: “The UK should be ashamed. Migrant sex workers must be free to report violence or harassment without fear of deportation. Predators are already aware of our inability to ask the police for help, and racist policing triggered by Brexit directly increases danger.”
The Home Affairs Select Committee recommended decriminalising prostitution in 2016. The interim report on prostitution said the Home Office should immediately change the legislation so soliciting would no longer be an offence, and change brothel-keeping laws to permit sex workers to share premises without losing the ability to prosecute those who used brothels to control or exploit sex workers.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We only return those with no legal right to remain in the UK, including foreign national offenders. We have no plans to change the law around prostitution, but we are committed to tackling the harm and exploitation associated with sex work.
“That is why we are funding research into the scale and nature of prostitution in England and Wales. The government is also providing £100m in funding to tackle all forms of violence against women and girls.”
Dan Vajzovic, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s lead for prostitution and sex work, said: “The police service has refined its approach to dealing with sex workers over the past decade. Our approach now emphasises the need not to start from a position that simply criminalising vulnerable individuals – we now place a much greater emphasis on providing support and ensuring safety.”
Mr Vajzovic, an assistant chief constable, added: “Whilst we will pursue criminal justice outcomes where necessary, our priority is to work to reduce the vulnerability of those working in the sex industry. Where we identify exploitation we will work with third parties to help those who have been exploited to exit prostitution.”