European Sex Workers Facing Threats of Violence and Deportation in the UK

Following Brexit, sex workers say they face increased violence, xenophobia and threats of deportation.
May 20, 2021, 5:21pm
Brexit, sex workers say they face increased violence, xenophobia and threats of deportation.
Sex workers and campaigners march on Internation Women's Day 2019. Photo by Wiktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Sex workers in the UK have faced increased xenophobia, violence, and fears around deportation in the years since the Brexit referendum, according to a new report. 

Research from the University of Salford and the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) looks at Brexit and the UK’s hostile environment policy on immigration has impacted a precarious industry, where 41 percent of people are estimated to be non-British nationals, with the majority coming from Eastern European countries. In the UK, it is legal to work as a sex worker, but many aspects of the job are criminalised, such as working with other sex workers.

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As a consequence of the UK voting to leave the EU, freedom of movement rules no longer apply to EU and UK citizens. While immigration enforcement in the UK typically focuses on non-EU migrants, Brexit means that European citizens also face the risk of being detained or deported, if they have not applied for settled status.

The report found that 63 percent of sex workers felt clients’ attitudes to them had worsened since the 2016 referendum, as well as feeling that the general public’s attitude towards sex workers had worsened (62 percent). The vast majority – 78 percent – said that their ability to earn a living through sex work had decreased. Some workers said they had changed their place of work due to a perceived increased risk of deportation. 

Many sex workers noted an increased fear of violence since the referendum. Forty-four percent said that they had experienced an increase in violence while 68 percent said that their concerns around violence had increased. Over half of respondents – 57 percent – observed a rise in the levels of hate crime that they had experienced since the referendum.

Sex workers are reluctant to go to the police for fear that they will be disbelieved and threatened with deportation – something which the report says has worsened since the referendum. One respondent said: “I would be even less willing to go to the police if I experience any violence. Too many migrant sex workers have been threatened with deportation.” Some workers said they had had more contact with the police, but felt they got little protection from instances of violence. Twenty four sex workers described their relationship with the police as "poor".

Tania, a sex worker working in London with EU citizenship spoke to VICE World News on condition of anonymity because of the insecurity of her work. “I have been in the UK since 2015,” she said. “[During] this time I never heard any girl saying they weren't safe. After Brexit, now, the girls have a WhatsApp group to share information about what's happened. Every day one or two girls say ‘Look, this client is being difficult, [he] wasn't a nice person, tried to force me to do something or didn't want to pay.’ I know people who have worked here for 15 years, and they say the same thing, after Brexit, things changed completely.”

Tania says clients will often notice that the women are from a European country, and will challenge their immigration status. “Clients say, “Do you have the right to stay in the UK or are you [legally allowed] to work here?” and they try and take advantage.”

“Most of the girls I know say the same thing, they have been really scared,” she says. “Most are saying they can't go to the police because they are afraid of getting into trouble”, says Tania.

A spokesperson for the ECP said: “We are glad to have contributed to this important research which reports our experiences of the increase in racism and violence, including from the police and the authorities.”

“It is critical information because if migrant sex workers are discriminated against and denied protection then violent men are given a green light to attack with impunity,” they said. “Research like this strengthens the demand for the decriminalisation of sex work, to ensure that sex workers are not undermined in their fight for safety and rights.”