Sex work on the other side of the sea

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A few months ago, 26 young Nigerian women were buried in Italy. The women had drowned in the Mediterranean on their way from Libya. Two of the women were identified; two were pregnant.

Never before has a funeral for migrants received such massive media coverage. The funeral was attended by sex workers in Italy, NGOs, journalists and local politicians. A Nigerian woman sent me a photo of the rows of brown caskets decorated with white flowers paid for by the Italian authorities. These photos from the funeral went viral.

It is likely that at least some of the 26 Nigerian women who drowned were headed to Europe to become sex workers. While research shows that most of them are aware that they might have to sell sex, they arrive with very little knowledge about the realities of living in Europe as an undocumented migrant.

The press described the women as sex slaves — victims of trafficking — on their way to Europe. Migrant women rarely catch our attention unless — as was the case here — the Mediterranean claims their lives in large numbers, or when they are called sex slaves or when they sell sex in the red-light districts near where we live.

However, behind the sad and dramatic images of drowned women lies a reality in which more and more women from Africa and Asia migrate alone and engage in sex work upon arrival.

Despite major information campaigns in countries of origin and millions of euros spent by Europe and elsewhere in the fight against human trafficking, the number of Nigerian women crossing the Mediterranean is greater than ever. The IOM estimates that the number of Nigerian women that arrived in Italy by boat has increased from around 400 to 11,000 within the past two years alone.

Why are anti-trafficking campaigns and other efforts not working? One reason is that these campaigns and related programs do not focus on these women’s obvious and very fundamental problem: They need jobs and money.

As an anthropologist, I’ve spent the past fifteen years working with two of the largest groups of migrant sex workers in Europe: Nigerian women who cross the ocean from Libya and Thai women who arrive by airplane. I’ve conducted field work in Nigeria, Thailand and Sicily, in various red-light districts and at brothels in rural areas in Denmark.

One thing is clear, due to increased border controls at all points of their journey, these women now arrive with greater debts via more dangerous routes, and live more vulnerable lives forced to survive under the radar. Yet, they still migrate.

The women finance their journey from their home country by taking up loans of between €5,500 Euros and €60,000 to pay for false documents, transport, and for some of them, with the promise that someone will be there to receive them and provide them with a job. Nigerian women owe the highest amounts.

Because of Europe’s tightened borders, undocumented migrant women arrive with a significant debt that they have to pay off. The harder it is to get into Europe, the more debt these women arrive with — and the more vulnerable they are to those who profit from the EU’s strict migration policies.

At a worn down brothel in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, women earn around €2 per client. In transit in Libya, they earn around €4-5 per client. If they sell sex from refugee camps in Sicily, they earn around €10 per client. However, the unemployment for migrants in Italy is high. Most of the women quickly travel further north, to places like Copenhagen, where they earn around €80 per client.

Nigerian women have worked as sex workers in Europe for many years. Before the migration crisis they were older when they arrived, had been in Italy for a long time before traveling further north, and some of them obtained legal residence.

Thai women used to arrive on a long-term tourist visa and typically went back home when the visa expired. Now, they travel via Eastern Europe on an eight-day visa, stay for longer, and travel onward to work alone at the increasing number of rural brothels.

These women are not passive victims. Typically, it is women who mediate loans, find brothels, and arrange documents, transport and travel itineraries for other women. Often, they have been in a similar situation as those they now assist. I’m meeting ever more women who finance their own migration by recruiting or being involved in the migration of others. Who is the victim and who is the villain?

The Nigerian women say that they migrate because of unemployment, falling oil prices, unemployed male providers, and — for the younger women in particular — because of the migrant crisis itself. The more women that leave, the more that follow in their footsteps. “We’re leaving now, because so many others are going too,” one young woman explained to me.

They do not blame Europe, traffickers or the demand for sex among European sex clients. According to these women, the reason to leave Nigeria is that “God forgot about Nigeria long ago.” They say: “Nigeria’s economy is poor, no one takes care of us, we have to take care of ourselves.” One of the more experienced women, who herself also recruits women to Europe, said: “My solution is women’s built-in ATM machine.”

The problem with the sensationalist headlines about sex slaves and stop-gap solutions in Europe is that they make us blind to the real issues: Unemployment and shortage of money at home. Campaigns to warn women in Nigeria and Thailand about the trafficking-risks of migration make little sense if there is no good alternative in their home country.

As a result, migrant women often run away from crisis centers and refugee camps in order to make money. They are afraid of deportation and evade authorities. It is often difficult to find witnesses willing to testify against the men and women taking the women to Europe, and there are very few convictions. Nor do the women go to the police when they have been exposed to violence, mainly because they are afraid of being sent back home with only debt and broken illusions.

Of course, there are no quick fixes. But since money is their biggest problem, Europe should focus on debt reduction, job creation for the entire family, and better and more innovative financing possibilities to start small businesses. Such work is obviously also the responsibility of home countries like Nigeria and Thailand, as the women themselves point out.

It would also be helpful if the women were granted longer temporary residence in Europe so that they could work while solving their situation, rather than running from those who seek to rescue them.

Rather than repeating headings of sex slavery, Europe, in collaboration with the women’s home countries, has to focus on these women’s financial situation. If not, the consequence is ever increasing numbers of indebted, vulnerable, traveling women migrants and sex workers who live under the radar in European red-light districts and across European borders.

Further Reading