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The intersectionality of irregular migration and violence against sex workers

Note: I’m very pressed for time so I won’t be able to include a lot of links in this post. If there’s anything you’d like me to back up, leave a comment and I will do so when I get back to the blog after Christmas.

Tomorrow afternoon, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland is holding a march in Dublin, in solidarity with the undocumented.

This is a march that I heartily endorse. Irish immigration policy promotes irregular migration/residency in a lot of ways: we have the lowest refugee recognition rate in the EU; we don’t grant a statutory right to family reunification to anyone except refugees and EU citizens; we have work permit rules that make it easy for people to become undocumented without even knowing it, or that can force them to remain in an unbearable situation (such as with an abusive spouse or employer) if they want to retain their status. It is, quite frankly, a shocking way for a country that has exported so many of its own people to treat those who come here.

It is also ironic that successive governments have refused to consider a regularisation scheme, even after they’ve made pests of themselves to the US authorities demanding the same for the thousands of undocumented Irish. Although I support that too, as a matter of kneejerk anti-border principle, I have to say I find it difficult to get more worked up about the people at risk of being deported back to Ireland than about the people in Ireland at risk of being deported to, say, the DRC. (It’s called “perspective”.) As a practical matter, too, I think it must be pretty hard for American politicians to take these demands seriously, knowing that the Irish government making them wouldn’t bring in the same laws itself.

So I hope a lot of people turn out for this march. And most of all, I hope it’s a step toward the adoption of a sensible and compassionate immigration policy (though in all honesty, I can’t say I’ll be holding my breath).

Tomorrow is also, of course, the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers. Events will be held around the globe to commemorate this – but not, as far as I know, here in Ireland.

In the absence of such an event, the march in solidarity with the undocumented would be an ideal place to highlight the subject of violence against sex workers, because there is a clear intersection between the two issues. Undocumented migrants in the sex industry can be at particular risk of violence, for a number of reasons:

  • The inability to migrate legally leaves them reliant on smugglers and traffickers, who may carry out violent acts against them.
  • In addition to any ordinary criminal penalties around selling sex, they also face the threat of deportation. This may make them particularly likely to turn to pimps to hide them from police. While not all pimps are violent, it’s obviously a pretty big risk. The threat of deportation also means they may be less likely to report violent acts against them, whether at the hands of pimps, clients, people posing as clients, disgruntled neighbourhood residents or ordinary arseholes who feel entitled to abuse the sex workers unfortunate enough to encounter them.
  • Police officers may compel undocumented migrants to grant them sexual favours in exchange for not reporting their unlawful presence.
  • Undocumented migrants are generally prohibited from working in legal sex sectors; the health and safety protections that legal workers have in some countries generally do not apply to the undocumented.
  • Brothel raids tend to target those establishments where the presence of undocumented workers is suspected. These raids often result in physical and/or sexual abuse of the people “rescued”. Since the raids don’t address the reason for entry into sex work in the first place, often the “rescued” persons just return to the industry; if they are in debt bondage, they may sink further into debt as a result of the income lost from the raid, thereby heightening their vulnerability to whomever the debt is owed to. Retrafficking is also a risk in some of these cases.
  • Undocumented migrants do not have the option that many resident sex workers have to find another source of income if their income from sex work declines. This may make it more difficult for them to refuse clients who are known to be “bad dates”, or whom their instincts tell them they should avoid.
  • This is just a handful of examples. I could probably think of more if had more time, but hopefully the point has come across. It is worth highlighting again Nick Mai’s recent study of migrant sex workers in Britain, which found that overwhelmingly, they considered regularisation of their status to be the single thing they needed most to protect themselves from abuse and exploitation. In that, I’m sure they would find common ground with the non-sex-working migrants whom the organisers of tomorrow’s march probably had in mind.

    Regrettably, I won’t be at the march tomorrow. I’ll be taking a holiday from my own work, which is in an office where I’ve little risk of violence (barring a colleague going postal). I’ll be travelling between two different countries in which I have an absolute right to enter, remain and work. But my thoughts will be with those who aren’t so lucky – for either reason or, especially, for both.

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

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