An account of sex workers’ rights in Europe in 2016
Today, on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, ICRSE calls on European LGBT, women’s rights, feminist, migrant and other human rights organisations to join our fight to challenge stigma against sex workers and support the sex worker movement’s demands for decriminalisation and safe working conditions.
2016 has seen a marked increase in the number of laws and policies criminalising sex work in Europe and Central Asia, as the majority of governments has chosen to tackle social issues through punitive, rather than social measures. While many countries, such as Albania, Armenia, Russia, and Ukraine maintain the harmful direct criminalisation and penalisation of sex workers, others have introduced “End Demand” models following the example of Sweden, claiming that they wish to boost gender equality.
In France, where the overwhelming majority of sex workers opposed the criminalisation of their clients, half a year after the law entered into force it is reported that the bargaining power of sex workers is greatly reduced, sex workers have lost a significant portion of their income, which pushed them even more into precarious working conditions, having to take on aggressive clients they had the ability to refuse before. Less in the spotlight in Europe, Serbia has introduced amendments to its public order law to criminalise clients as well as increasing the punishment for sex workers, who can now be imprisoned for up to 60 days if unable to pay the huge fines they receive.
Another negative trend that we witnessed in some parts of the region is an increased tendency to limit sex work by subjecting it to meticulous state control and surveillance through legalisation. In Germany, where the sex work legislation had been considered as of the most liberal in Europe, the ‘Prostitutes Protection Law’ passed this year by the German parliament will raise the stigmatisation of sex workers to a new level. Sex workers will only be able to work legally if they undergo forced registration through obligatory counselling and evaluation of one's mental status by a state authority, all in the name of preventing trafficking. Similarly, Dutch municipalities continue to erode sex workers’ rights by using their authority for municipal regulation with numerous arbitrary by-laws, particularly in bigger cities, such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht.
2016 also saw a rising influx of migrants to the European region. As a result of the criminalisation of migration, repressive immigration and asylum policies, xenophobia and poverty, many refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants might feel they have little choice but to sell sex. A large number of people also migrate to and across Europe in order to find work in the sex industry, due to the lack of social and economic opportunities in their respective home countries, the need to escape from oppressive family arrangements, patriarchal relations, misogyny and trans- or homophobia. Instead of solidarity and support, migrant sex workers face repeated police raids and so-called rescue operations, which force them to work underground, increase their vulnerability to exploitation and frequently result in their repatriation or deportation.
Amidst all these backlashes, sex worker activists remained resilient across the region. They denounced policy attempts to curb their rights, mass mobilised against murders of community members, advocated at decision-making levels and provided essential community care that is much more needed than ever before.
ICRSE and its members worked together with civil society groups, such as Amnesty International and Transgender Europe on their positions for sex work decriminalisation, organised meetings to challenge misguided anti-trafficking policies that significantly heighten sex workers’ vulnerability to abuse, violence and exploitation and campaigned to counter harmful abolitionist feminist notions of sex work that depict sex workers as “prostituted women” without agency who are victims of male violence.