WARSAW – On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, sex work advocate Agata Dziuban visited every brothel she knew. She and other members of Sex Work Polska, Poland’s largest sex work organisation, were reaching out to offer their help.
“When the war broke out, we went to every single brothel in which Ukrainian sex workers work on that day and asked them what they needed,” says Dziuban. “A lot of people appeared here and they needed to legalise their stay in 60 days. A lot of women brought their kids in. So they also needed to put them in the schooling system. That was new for us – we were putting children into schools and kindergarten.”
On the 24th of February, Russian President Vladimir Putin moved his tanks across the border into Ukraine, starting one of the biggest conflicts on European soil since World War II. In neighbouring Poland, numerous organisations coordinated on the ground response to help the three million people that would eventually cross into the country, the vast majority women. Sex Work Polska (SWP) was one of these organisations – ready for the influx of sex workers coming over, and helping those already in Poland to bring families in. Overall estimates of how many sex workers there are in a country vary as it is hard to measure a largely undocumented group.
In Ukraine, which is well known for its sex industry, it is believed there are around 80,100 sex workers, according to figures released in 2016. Number dropped after the 2014 invasion of Donbas, and will inevitably drop because of the war. There were an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 sex workers in Poland pre-war, and around 91 percent of migrant sex workers are from non-EU Eastern European countries, such as Ukraine. SWP believes around 60 percent of sex workers in Poland are from Ukraine.
Despite fears of women being trafficked into Poland to be sexually abused, SWP estimates very few will be forced into sex work. Instead, it is focussing on helping the Ukrainian women in Poland for the first time or coming here again under very different circumstances, and a right-wing state that has clamped down on sex workers under the guise of human curbing trafficking.
On a sunny day in Warsaw, Dziuban smokes a cigarette. She’s just come from the offices of SWP, which is Poland’s main sex-worker-led organisation and it helps people in the industry through advocacy, legal aid and support.
“A lot of the sex workers from Ukraine have not started working,” Dziuban tells VICE World News. “I think they are still kind of working their way around. Resting, trying to figure out how to manage their kids because many of them came with families. And some of them found employment in other sectors.”
Sex work as a whole hasn’t been hugely impacted as the women acclimatise to the impact of having to leave their home. Ukrainians who were already in Poland have had to deal with the challenges of accommodating their families… especially if they’ve been living and working in a brothel.
“People's situations changed rapidly,” Dziuban says. Most women, she explains, work in groups indoors in a brothel, a much safer environment
than street walking. This became tricky when the war broke out, and many Ukrainian women needed to move out and find new accommodation. “If you were living in a brothel and then all of a sudden you have four people coming over like your mother, two children, your sister, her children and extended families… you need to manage that.”
In Poland, employers or anyone involved in the employment of sex workers is criminalised, for example a receptionist, a driver, or a cleaner – anyone who facilitates and organises sex workers' work and earns money. Despite the criminalisation of the industry, police vary in their enforcement in the country. Brothels may be known to officers, but raids can be random and unpredictable. In December last year, the main Polish website for sex workers was unexpectedly shut down, making it harder for them to secure work.
“Our experience is that a lot of sex workers in Poland due to stigma and criminalisation are alienated, isolated or not connected within the communities,” says Dziuban. “Oftentimes, they just struggle with coming out to their families and friends, so we try to make safer spaces for sex workers.”
Now, the focus is on Ukraine. The organisation is constantly aiding women who are travelling over or have just arrived here with their families. A mobile phone, carried at all times by a member of the SWP, is there if women need advice. At one point in the conversation, it rings, and Dziuban picks up, switching into Russian before we continue our conversation in English.
For those just arriving from Ukraine, there are a host of additional issues. There’s the language barrier, along with the burden of medical care for the people who have travelled over. “Due to stress and trauma basically related to war, a lot of people started to collapse, physically and also psychologically. For example, experiencing short-term memory losses, panic attacks, et cetera," she says. “So we offered access to medical help.”
Many feared that the war in Ukraine would increase trafficking and force women into sex work, although trafficking usually accounts for an incredibly small proportion of those within the industry. Nonetheless, in July, Ukraine police claimed to have clamped down on a criminal ring luring women under false pretences into sex work, a risk – albeit small – heightened during wartime. Dziuban says this is not something she has seen, though she does recognise the risk of trafficking. The US government has said that last year, Poland did not meet “the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” but is making efforts to do so.
“You will have noticed that very soon after the war started, there was a huge discussion around how this could impact trafficking in human beings,” Dziuban says. “There were millions of articles and experts sharing their expertise but there is not a single case so far..”
She adds: “We've heard about cases before the war where some women were brought to a brothel and they were from Ukraine, and they were shocked because they were told that they were going to work in a restaurant.
“The sex workers in this venue just collected the money to buy them tickets to go back.”
It’s not just Ukrainian sex workers travelling across borders who have been affected by the war. Taking advantage of the invasion, Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice party has used trafficking fears to introduce legislation that has further clamped down on sex work. The government, known for its conservative policies including banning abortion, has used the war to increase fines against trafficking, as well as fines for people managing sex work venues, conflating the two issues. This is a disproportionate response, according to Dziuban, who says all sex workers working outdoors – for example on the street – do it independently, without pimps or brothel keepers.
“We have seen huge shifts since the 90s, in terms of how the labour market operates, because before it was more predatory,” says Dziuban, after 12 years of outreach work. “We can see that the issue of trafficking has not really been a huge issue for many, many years.”
While Poland's hostility to sex work will only add to the burden facing women fleeing Ukraine and their families, Dziuban is hopeful. Many women may pass through Poland, looking for a country with more rights for sex workers, like Germany, or with better reproductive rights. For now, most will just be dealing with the brutal invasion of their country, trying to find safety and security like the other 12 million refugees struggling to find a home.