The rights of sex workers after Brexit: an interview with Laura Connelly

We spoke to Dr Laura Connelly, University of Salford, who recently led a research project with The English Collective of Prostitutes to investigate the conditions EU sex workers face post-Referendum. We discuss the recently published findings. (Full report available here)

We know the Brexit referendum has had a dramatic impact on migrant workers in the UK. What does your research tell you about the specific experiences of sex workers with Brexit? Have they also faced increased xenophobia and hostility? 

EU migrant sex workers are facing more violence and xenophobia post-Referendum. Almost a half have seen an actual increase in the levels of violence they experience since the Referendum. More than half of our respondents have experienced xenophobic hate crime post-Referendum. Some have been physically assaulted, including one sex worker who had eggs and tomatoes thrown at them, and others verbally abused. It’s clear that violent men can use migrant sex workers’ uncertain immigration status to act with impunity. As one sex worker explained: “punters are more confident to report us to the police and Home Office. Their threats sound like ‘I’m going to get you deported, if you don’t give me my money back.”

Migrant sex workers also spoke about their increased fear of arrest and deportation post-Referendum. Over half of respondents believe their risk of arrest has increased and 66% think their risk of deportation has increased. There was a strong belief that the police could not be relied upon in the event that a sex worker was attacked. This was summarised by one sex worker: “I have been threatened by men on the street who said they would attack me. When I went to the police, they said ‘are you telling me you’re a prostitute because if you are, I am going to arrest you.’ I have experienced increasing racism and sexism from the police since the referendum was announced.” What is clear then is that far from being able to rely on the police for support, migrant sex workers are facing harm at the hands of the police, increased criminalisation and – via close working between the police and immigration agencies – increased risk of deportation. As respondents explained, this means that some sex workers are compelled to compromise their safety by working alone, because arrest for working alongside other sex workers could result in deportation.

Has this been different for EU and non-EU sex workers?

Our research explored EU migrant sex workers experiences specifically, but having worked closely with the English Collective of Prostitutes – a sex worker-led organisation – on this research, we know that non-EU migrants share many of the same experiences of increased violence and xenophobia, and heightened risk of criminalisation and deportation post-Referendum. In fact, the intersecting inequalities and potentially more precarious immigration status of non-EU migrant sex workers means that they can feel the negative repercussions of Brexit more acutely. 

What are the particular obstacles that sex workers face in regularising their status post-Brexit?

Some EU migrant sex workers in our research reported having been raided and arrested, others have been detained at Yarl’s Wood and threatened with deportation. This is despite the fact that sex workers can technically claim self-employed status under the EU Settlement Scheme (selling sex is not illegal in the UK; although many aspects of the sex industry are). However, many sex workers are disadvantaged in their application to the Scheme due to not having the documentation required to prove continual residence in the UK. This might be because the live in precarious housing where their name isn’t on the tenancy agreement or because their bank account was closed down as a result of the income coming from an unrecognised employer. Because there’s no legal precedent for sex workers to claim self-employed status, migrant sex workers have to fight their deportation on a case-by-case basis. With the upcoming deadline for applying for pre/settled status under the Scheme fast approaching, we urge the Government to grant automatic settled status to all EU citizens to avoid significant numbers of migrants – and likely the most marginalised of all EU migrants – becoming undocumented.

What would be the impact of the loss of freedom of movement on sex workers? Does the hostile environment tackle issues of trafficking in any meaningful way?

Almost 80% of EU migrant sex workers in our research noted that their income from sex work has decreased since the Referendum, and this has led them to make a number of changes to their working practices: from working longer or different hours, to changing workplaces, and the type of client they accept. Some EU migrant sex workers are having to work across multiple European countries in order to make enough money to feed themselves and their families. The loss of freedom of movement and subjecting migrant sex workers to the full force of the hostile environment will have far-reaching implications. Migrant sex workers are already subjected to more violence and xenophobia post-Referendum and given that they too fearful of criminalisation and deportation to report that victimisation to the police, violent men are enabled to act with impunity. As one sex worker put it, “punters are more confident to report us to the police and Home Office. Their threats sound like ‘I’m going to get you deported, if you don’t give me my money back.”

The human trafficking and modern slavery agenda does little to help migrant sex workers. In fact, it causes significant harm. Police and immigration are known to carry out so-called rescue raids on sex work premises, but migrant sex workers are then arrested, detained and deported as a result. If the UK is serious about addressing trafficking for sexual exploitation, a rights not rescue approach is needed.

What would be your key recommendations on the back of your research and what can allies do?

Based on these findings, we make a number of evidence-based recommendations. You can use our MP template on the ECP website to write to your local MP in support of these recommendations:

1. Decriminalise sex work. This will improve the rights and safety of all sex workers, including migrant sex workers. 

2. Grant automatic Settled Status to all EU citizens in the UK. This will help to redress the significant challenges EU migrant sex workers encounter in applying to the EU Settlement Scheme.

3. Expunge historical convictions for all sex workers. This will help to ensure that migrant sex workers are not deported as a result of having criminal convictions for sex work. 

4. Improve financial assistance for migrants in the UK. This will help to ensure that migrant sex workers are not compelled to accept dangerous clients in order to earn enough income to live off.

5. End the hostile environment. This will help tackle the range of state-imposed difficulties faced by people who migrate to the UK.