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International Migration of Sex Workers

Since the 1990’s Scarlet Alliance through its membership of State and Territory peer based sex worker organisations and projects has been involved in shaping the debate about the international migration of sex workers. Scarlet Alliance members, through their peer based outreach programs have extensive contact with international sex workers who have migrated to Australia for the purpose of working in the sex industry and this unique knowledge & expertise underpins the Scarlet Alliance perspective on migration and sex work.

This page relates to migration and trafficking issues globally. For more materials relating specifically to Australia, link here

Hit and Run, EMPOWER FOUNDATION, Thailand.
The Hit & Run report is the result of 12 months of research by Empower's RATSW project, investigates human rights violations against sex workers carried out in the name of rescues under the anti-trafficking laws. The report is a forensic examination of the impact of the 'Thai Suppression of Human Trafficking Act BE 2551 (2008) and associated policies and practices, on the human rights of sex workers in Thailand.

"We travel for days up the mountains, across rivers, through dense forest. We follow the paths that others have taken. Small winding paths of dust or mud depending on the season. I carry my bag of clothes and all the hopes of my family on my back. I carry this with pride; it’s a precious bundle not a burden. As for the border, for the most part, it does not exist. There is no line drawn on the forest floor. There is no line in the swirling river. I simply put my foot where thousands of other women have stepped before me. My step is excited, weary, hopeful, fearful and defiant. Behind me lies the world I know. It’s the world of my grandmothers and their grandmothers. Ahead is the world of my sisters who have gone before me, to build the dreams that keep our families alive.
This step is Burma. This step is Thailand. That is the border.
If this was a story of man setting out on an adventure to find a treasure and slay a dragon to make his family rich and safe, he would be the hero. But I am not a man. I am a woman and so the story changes. I cannot be the family provider. I cannot be setting out on an adventure. I am not brave and daring. I am not resourceful and strong. Instead I am called illegal, disease spreader, prostitute, criminal or trafficking victim.

Why is the world so afraid to have young, working class, non-English speaking, and predominately non-white women moving around? It’s not us that are frequently found to be pedophiles, serial killers or rapists. We have never started a war, directed crimes against humanity or planned and carried out genocide. It’s not us that fill the violent offender’s cells of prisons around the world. Exactly what risk does our freedom of movement pose? Why is keeping us in certain geographical areas so important that governments are willing to spend so much money and political energy? Why do we feel like sheep or cattle, only allowed by the farmer to graze where and when he chooses? Why do other women who have already crossed over into so many other worlds, fight to keep us from following them? Nothing in our experiences provides us with an answer to these questions. Instead of respect for our basic human rights under the United Nations Human Rights Council we are given “protection” under the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. We are forced to live with the modern lie that border controls and anti-trafficking policies are for our protection. None of us believe that lie or want that kind of protection. We have been spied on, arrested, cut off from our families, had our savings confiscated, interrogated, imprisoned and placed into the hands of the men with guns, in order for them to send us home… all in the name of “protection against trafficking”. It’s rubbing salt into the wound that this is called helping us. We are grateful for those who are genuinely concerned with our welfare … but we ask you to listen to us and think in new ways.

After “raid or rescue” we will walk the same path again, facing the same dangers at the same border crossings. Just like the women fighting to be educated, fighting to vote, fighting to participate in politics, fighting to be independent, fighting to work, to love, to live safely… we will not stay in the cage society has made for us, we will dare to keep crossing the lines.

Taiwanese Sex workers protest for decrminalisation of sex work

Important Articles

Sex Trafficking: The Abolitionist Fallacy, by Ann Jordon, March 2009 "Effective change comes from the bottom up, within the affected community where the persons who are the most knowledgeable and motivated live and work. The only way to build sustainable movements for change is to empower and support a vibrant civil society." This article challenges the assumption that criminalisation of sex work will reduce trafficking.

Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights around the World by GAATW, 2007. This collection of research articles looks at the negative impact of criminalisation of trafficking around the world.

Prostitution and Migration: Issues and Approaches Lin Chew, March 1998 This is a summary of a paper presented to the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers in Calcutta in 1998. It presents in point form some of the main arguments in support of sex workers having the right of migration in relation to sex work. In conclusion it proposes a method to critique policy.

An interview with Jo Doezema; Does attention to trafficking adversely affect sex workers’ rights? This interview by Elaine Murphy and Karin Ringheim exposes the conflicts between anti-trafficking groups and sex worker rights groups. In particular Jo talks about the experience of the Network of Sex Work Projects in trying to combat the myth that all people who migrate to work in the sex industry are ‘trafficked’.

Briefing Paper re: Amendments to the Federal Criminal Code (Sex Slavery), Scarlet Alliance There almost no legal opportunities for international migration for the purposes of sex work in Australia and people from other countries who are detected working in the sex work industry are dealt with harshly under Australian Law. The Australian Government does not consider working in the sex industry legitimate work for working visa applications and paid work is not generally permitted with other types of visas. The opportunities for international migration for the purposes of sex work are further complicated by sex work activities being criminalised in many jurisdictions. This seminal Scarlet Alliance discussion paper was released when the Commonwealth Government was developing the ‘Slavery & Sexual Servitude’ legislation (1998) and sought to respond to the both the motivation for the legislative changes and the narrow and misguided focus of Governments that continues to view migration for the purposes of sex work as trafficking and sex slavery. Clear arguments navigate through the complex terrain of moralistic, colonialist, sexist and racist judgments that our current Federal laws are based upon. A must read.

Identifying core rights of concern to migrants Background Paper, International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Perruchoud and Vohra This is an excellent paper that explains the cross-over between issues that migrant workers face, and the human rights we should all have access to. Not written with sex work in mind, it does admit that trafficking is a huge challenge, but that people are reliant on traffickers due to the inaccessibility of legal migration.

Loose Women or Lost Women The re-emergence of the myth of ‘white slavery’ in contemporary discourses of ‘trafficking in women’ by Jo Doezema Jo compares the ‘white slavery’ myth with current debates about ‘trafficking’. The anti-trafficking lobbyists have won ground by stereotyping women who migrate to work in the sex industry as ‘victims’ and ‘forced’, and adopting many of the tactics first employed by the ‘white slavery’ myth; “innocence deceived, youthful virginity despoiled, the motifs of disease and death, the depraved black/Jewish/foreign trafficker…” (pg 25)

Who gets to choose? Coercion, consent and the UN Trafficking Protocol by Jo Doezema During the writing of the UN "Trafficking Protocol", lobby groups were split into two camps; the Human Rights Caucus saw sex work as legitimate labour and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women saw all sex work as a violation of women’s human rights. Against this backdrop Jo describes the lobbying and interactions between these two groups.

Border Thinking On Migration, Trafficking And Sex Work

In the process of migrating, most people run into opportunities to work in jobs not included in formal, official accounting and lists.. Such jobs often mean no rights for workers, who must accept whatever bosses offer... This is a fundamental issue underlying the vulnerability of migrants who can easily find jobs outside their own countries – and who therefore understand that their labour is needed – but who cannot become official residents or citizens based on their employment. Link for more...

Minseongnoryeon is devoted to fight for the abolition of the Special Laws against Prostitution led by mainstream feminists, and the redevelopment by construction capital carried out by enforcement agencies. The celebration of the third anniversary of "Sex workers' day" is another signal of our determination to fight for our right of survival and right of abode. We hope to join in strong solidarity with those citizens and social organizations that sympathize with our cause in sex workers' movement.

Read more of the sex worker statement against the trafficking laws in South Korea
"Special Law on Prostitution proving ineffective" The Hankyoryeh, 23 September 2003

International News on Migration

Cambodian Sex Workers are held in detention as a result of anti-trafficking laws more info

Hong Kong Police Force hold suspected migrant sex workers in cage more info


Download the "RighT Guide" - an assessment tool for anti-trafficking measures, described in the YouTube Video above

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