Independent: Sex worker beaten by her clients shares deportation fears as police crack down on prostitution
Exclusive: Sex worker says being ‘dragged through’ criminal justice system has ‘destroyed’ her life and made her homeless
Maya Oppenheim Women’s Correspondent
“Five or six police officers came to my flat last April,” Iris says.
“I was really shocked so I didn’t open the door because I didn’t know what was going on. They broke my door.”
The 35-year-old woman, who works as both a hospital technician and a sex worker, said officers put her in handcuffs before taking her to a police station where she waited in a cell for six hours before they interviewed her.
The mother says being “dragged through” the criminal justice system has “destroyed” her life and made her homeless.
The case of Iris – whose name has been changed to protect her identity – is not unique, according to the English Collective of Prostitutes, a leading campaign group that supports sex workers.
On the contrary, the organisation warned increasing numbers of prostitutes are being placed under investigation by the police for lengthy periods of time – warning this is a deliberate attempt by the authorities to eschew normal bail conditions.
“It was cold,” Iris says of the police cell she waited in before being questioned by officers. “The house they arrested me in was my personal place, I did not use it for sex work. They raided one of the flats and my house.”
Iris, who has a young daughter, said officers confiscated her purse before releasing her late at night from the police station with no money, with officers refusing to give her any spare change despite her asking.
The investigation has also led to her bank accounts and assets being frozen.
She said officers told her she was under arrest on charges of modern slavery, as well as other offences of brothel-keeping, and controlling.
While it is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex from each other in the UK, soliciting and sex workers banding together as a group is outlawed.
Iris said the charges against her were trumped-up and wholly unfair and she has never been involved in controlling, brothel-keeping or trafficking, but explained she does check in with fellow sex workers before and after they leave clients on the phone to ensure they are safe.
None of the fellow sex workers she has helped are trafficking victims, she added.
One time, a client let another four guys into the apartment. They wrecked the place and tried to rape me but didn’t because I was crying and begging. Iris
“They are healthy, they call their family every day, they are free to come and go as they want,” she says. “I get them to call me in case they have any trouble. If I can’t contact them, I call the police or someone else to help them.”
In one instance, she knows of a sex worker who was kidnapped by one of her clients and put inside a van. “That client pretended he was a police officer,” Iris says.
“He tortured her for two or three hours. She came back and had bruises and swollen eyes and everything. After that, I assisted her to go to the police station and report and helped her translate.”
Violence is prevalent in her work, Iris said, as she warned violent men “take advantage” of the fact you are a sex worker.
She said she has suffered a great deal of violence as well as having been robbed by male customers many times.
“I’ve been punched in the eyes,” Iris says. “I’ve had bruises on my body, I didn’t go to report it as it is a grey zone.
“One time, a client let another four guys into the apartment. They wrecked the place and tried to rape me but didn’t because I was crying and begging.”
She said she has helped some women with advertising for sex work due to having better English than them.
“Mostly they come from Asia, their English is not good enough,” Iris explains. “They know I speak English.”
Iris said she fears she may be deported over the charges she is facing as she explained she has had to postpone the nursing training she was accepted onto. She noted one of the worst elements of the ordeal is having no idea when the investigation will end.
“There is no timeline,” she says. “I might still not know in three or four years. Nobody is contacting me telling me details of my case.
“My solicitor asked the police and they said we don’t have any update for you. If you get a criminal record all your plans are ruined, but they are already ruined.”
While Iris is confident the authorities have no witnesses to prove their allegations, she said the case is having profound repercussions on her mental health and finances.
The situation is compounded by the fact she is sofa-surfing as she is homeless and not able to visit her daughter who is abroad due to the police confiscating her passport.
“It is affecting my sleep,” she says. “I wake up at two or three in the morning thinking about what has happened to me. I have had to stop sex work because I’m still under investigation. It is really affecting my income. I had to sell my house because I couldn’t afford my mortgage.”
It comes after a report, shared exclusively with The Independent last year, found violence and threats of deportation against sex workers from the European Union who are living in the UK have surged since the Brexit vote.
I have seen so many women who get a conviction in their early 20s and then are stuck in prostitution for the rest of their life because they are barred from other jobs, especially ones that they would be ideally suited to like care jobs. Niki Adams
The study, carried out by the University of Salford and the English Collective of Prostitutes, discovered 54 per cent of sex workers they polled believe their risk of arrest has risen in the wake of the referendum, while two thirds believe their risk of deportation has gone up.
Some 44 per cent referred to their relationship with the police as poor or very poor – with some saying they had personally experienced raids and being arrested.
Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, told The Independent Iris is one of many women their network supports who has been raided, arrested and prosecuted simply for supporting other sex workers or working alongside each other to stay safe against potentially dangerous customers.
“Most of these raids are justified by police saying they are cracking down on ‘modern slavery’ but it is migrant sex workers who are harmed,” Ms Adams adds.
“The consequences are so serious; even an arrest can bar you from other jobs, let alone a conviction. I have seen so many women who get a conviction in their early 20s and then are stuck in prostitution for the rest of their life because they are barred from other jobs, especially ones that they would be ideally suited to like care jobs.”
Ms Adams, who is supporting Iris with her case, argued the modern slavery agenda has provided the police with “justification” to increase raids and arrests of migrant sex workers as she argued the legislation is being misused.
“A lot of time the police are working to various targets, especially modern slavery targets,” the campaigner adds. “They want to be looking to be doing something.”
The campaigner warned of a misogynistic, racist notion that unfairly typecasts all migrant women as victims.
She also argued lockdowns declared during the pandemic resulted in the police ramping up criminalisation against sex workers.
“The women in our group who have been raided and prosecuted for brothel-keeping are heads of households, with families both here and back home who depend on them for their survival,” Ms Adams says.
Turning her attention to Iris’ case, she said she is confident they can successfully fight it, but sounded alarm bells about how she has been treated. “Assisting someone to do their advertising – that is how they get you,” Ms Adams said.
“The law on controlling is so broad that any kind of assistance can be seen as controlling. It is not controlling as most people would understand it. Is not directing, just assisting someone in some kind of way.”
Ms Adams said Iris’ work helping women by getting them to ring her before and after seeing clients is likely to have “saved a lot of women from being robbed and raped” as she explained Iris was shocked to learn what she had been doing was illegal.
The campaigner said it was standard for the police to seize and freeze bank accounts, as well as confiscate phones, computers, purses, credit cards, and paperwork, such as documents connected to their home, from sex workers they are investigating and never return the items.
“There seems to be a pattern now – instead of releasing people on bail or charging them, they just release them under investigation, so people sit in limbo,” Ms Adams adds.
“There is no pressure or obligation to move the case forward. When you are under investigation, you are not entitled to representation or legal aid, which puts people at a big disadvantage.”