Against the backdrop of the EU referendum campaign, London-based Romanian women sex workers are using EU law to challenge the police and fight for their rights. Under Operation Nexus, the Met are monitoring Romanian sex workers, rounding them up and ordering them to leave the country because they claim that sex work doesn't count as legitimate employment.
With the help of the English Collective of Prostitutes, a handful of women are preparing to challenge this, arguing that the EU courts have ruled that self employed sex work is legitimate in terms of the right to stay in the country. The stated aims of Operation Nexus are to capture EU criminals and "high harm" individuals, but the women say that it's targeting them unfairly – setting them up for deportation even when they don't have a criminal record.
I'm a sex worker myself, working independently as a professional dominatrix. Leaving the EU would have little immediate effect on my working life. One reason that I so passionately support Remain is because I know just how privileged and lucky I am. For Romanian sex workers, a Leave vote would do more than make this essential legal challenge disintegrate – it would threaten their safety and their livelihoods.
Here's how Operation Nexus works on the streets of London, according to Anna, a Romanian activist with the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP):
"Over a few months to a year, Romanian women find that they're getting 'raided' over and over by the police. The women are asked who they live with, what they charge, how much money they make. Police approach the women in a 'friendly' way, but fingerprint the women every time they talk to them, to keep track of each one. Then, the police suddenly come and detain the women, along with the UK Border agency – they bring the van with them. Right then and there, they serve the women with a deportation order, claiming 'they are not exercising their treaty rights'. A photo is taken of each woman and it's attached to each deportation letter. Some are taken under arrest and held for two or three days, and their passports are taken. They are told that in order to get their passports back they need to have a one way ticket back home."
Since January of 2014, Romanian nationals have been allowed to come to the UK for three months. After that they must be working, studying, engaging in self-employment or living as a dependent on someone else, in order to exercise their treaty rights to stay. Romanians up for deportation can challenge it by demonstrating work or study, but those doing sex work – or other casual or cash-in-hand jobs – find it difficult to provide documentation and face a bureaucratic minefield, not to mention the linguistic and financial barriers to proving their cases.
"You find all the deadlines among this wodge of paper, whether you know English or not," says Laura Watson, an ECP spokeswoman. "Women find inconsistent information, like being given two different deadlines for the appeal, or two appointments to go to. It's all very unclear, and full of barriers – and they just tell you you're not exercising your treaty rights. They don't tell you what exercising your treaty rights is."
Since it started in 2012, Operation Nexus has thrown the world of sex working Romanian women into havoc, and has meant that women fear reporting violence to the police. The European Collective of Prostitutes has prepared a letter of complaint to the Metropolitan Police, which they will submit in the next week or so. It says: "What is particularly worrying is that reports of violence are also being dismissed by police, with women being told that if they don't like the situation they should go home. One woman reported that there was an increase in men in the area who were threatening violence to get women to work for them. She said: 'If I can see these gangsters parked up near where I work, and if I can see them going up to women and trying to scare them, then why can't the police?'"
The letter even questions the police's motives: "It is therefore not unreasonable to consider whether the police see these violent men as somehow useful to their efforts to scare women off the streets."
Women report to the ECP that they have curtailed their screening for fear of being picked up by police. They just jump into the cars as quickly as possible, avoid talking in groups and pick up clients in isolated places. Without recourse to the police, sex workers are having to take their safety into their own hands, according to Laura.
"A north London woman reported violence to the police, and they said to her, 'Are you telling us you're a prostitute? Because, if so, we're going to arrest you.' In the end, this woman had to get the violent guys off her back herself rather than the police doing anything about it," she says. "It's known in the area that the violence is ignored, but the police are ready to organise five vans of immigration officers to sit there and target women as soon as they gather and chat together. It's a terrible thing."
The ECP fears that a Leave vote wouldn't just collapse the challenge against Operation Nexus, but could threaten the status of all the Romanians working in the UK. Faced with being rounded up and deported, many would choose stay and work illegally.
Anna spelled out what this would mean for sex workers: "Being illegal and undocumented, if we were to leave the EU, clients or violent people would see that a person is a migrant and know that the UK is not part of the EU any more. They would become more and more violent, and there would be more and more dangerous people out there trying to harm the women."
Romanian women aren't holding out any hope that the EU will bring about the full decriminalisation of sex work any time soon, but they're confident of their power to keep each other safe and to organise, if they have the right to stay, says Anna.
"It doesn't matter where we're from, Europe, the US, Africa, India and China – we are all sex workers and we all come to the same conclusion: being united, we can defeat them all. Loads of us fighting for the same thing are more likely to get it. If you separate yourself, you are more likely to be targeted or defeated. We all suffer the same issues and we all want decriminalisation and access to health and better resources."
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