Today, we celebrate the 11th EU Anti-Trafficking day. Human trafficking is a prevalent practice globally, with instances of exploitation and human rights violations being reported in many nations each year. There are an estimated 21 million people in forced or coerced human trafficking worldwide according to the International Labour Organization Estimate on Forced Labour, which was published in 2012.
Moreover, according to the International Organization on Migration, 70% of trafficked victims are led to prostitution. One would expect, that this correlation between trafficking and prostitution, would lead national governments and non-government organizations to join efforts in putting barriers to prostitution. On the contrary, Germany and the Netherlands decriminalized prostitution and Amnesty International published a controversial report that supports the view that the decriminalization of prostitution can help in protecting vulnerable people involved in this industry. Read here an analysis of the prostitution policies written by my colleague, Lefteris Kaloterakis.
In May 2016 Amnesty International published a policy document on "state obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of sex workers” The stated aim is to ensure that “sex workers have equal access to justice, health care and other public services, and to equal protection under the law. The key argument of this document is that the “decriminalization of sex work remains a key step in protecting the rights of “sex workers”. They claim that Amnesty International claims that “This policy does not argue that there is a human right to buy sex or a human right to financially benefit from the sale of sex by another person. Rather, it calls for sex workers to be protected from individuals who seek to exploit and harm them and it recognizes that the criminalization of adult consensual sex work interferes with the realization of the human rights of sex workers," . Amnesty's published findings are based on research it carried out in Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Oslo and Papua New Guinea. They claim that this study found that sex workers are most at risk of coming across discrimination and oppression and “face attacks, discrimination and injustice at the hands of police, clients, exploitative third parties involved in sex work, landlords, family, community and healthcare providers.” Amnesty claimed that due to the “criminalized nature of sex work” sex workers are “forced to operate at the margins of society in clandestine and dangerous environments”.
The report was widely criticized from several angles. A change.org petition against this report deems the use of the terms “sex work” and “sex workers” as offending. They claim that it “offends those of us who know that money does not equal consent, that no matter what laws may be legislated... no one has a "right" to purchase a person for sexual gratification”. This view is also shared by ex-prostituted men who claim that the term “sex work” originated by US-based pimps to normalize prostitution. While it has mainly been used to avoid offending prostituted women, the way it is used today clearly benefits pimps who are also regarded as “sex workers” even though they exploit women resorting to prostitution and use psychological and very physical violence against them. A heated debate on whether to regard prostitution as a normal profession is ongoing around the world.
However, documents leaked in 2013 revealed that Amnesty International had decided to proceed with a decriminalizing position from the onset without objectively hearing both opinions In fact, the leaked document starts with the phrase: “Amnesty International is opposed to the criminalization or punishment of activities related to the buying or selling of consensual sex between adults.” But when one takes a position on a topic before the beginning of the consultation process how can the results of his study be trusted? Moreover, although Amnesty International claims to have conducted a thorough consultation process that also involved abolitionist organisations the truth is different. When the draft policy paper was leaked, it was condemned by many survivor and feminist groups that are members of Amnesty International. They were then offered only three weeks to give their feedback although, most of them received no notifications. The final version of the document did not contain the criticisms that were voiced by feminist and survivor groups. Additionally, information on the results of the criminalization of the purchase of sexual relations in Scandinavian countries (known as the Nordic model was not presented in an unbiased way. This led the Swedish arm of Amnesty International Sweden to take a stand against this report and reaffirm its opposition to the decriminalisation of prostitution.
The biased way the consultation was conducted is also confirmed by Isla Mc Gregor who is an Australian feminist and environmental activist. Addressing a conference at the Australian Parliament in April 2016, she criticized the way the report was drafted and claimed that the voices of sex survivors were excluded from Amnesty’s consultations and reporting during the preparation of this report. She also revealed that Amnesty International began its consultation process on the issue of prostitution in 2008, largely in response to lobbying by the Amnesty Newcastle UK branch, and one of their members and known pimp Douglas Fox, founder of the International Union of Sex Workers. Fox actually runs one of the larger escort companies in the United Kingdom. Mc Gregor claimed that Fox had stated publicly that he would pursue Amnesty International ‘mercilessly’ to develop a policy supporting full decriminalization of the sextrade. She also mentioned that there several so called “sex worker” unions that were consulted during the consultation process claiming that these organisations are propaganda machines led very often by persons convicted for sex trafficking. For example, she referred to the example of a sex worker advocate from Canada; Terri Jean Bedford. She was convicted of running a brothel. Bedford was one of three applicants, describing themselves as sex workers, who challenged the Canadian laws on prostitution with the goal of decriminalizing prostitution in Canada.
The report was also criticized from a gender perspective. According to the change.org petition, this report “…violates the basic human rights and dignities of prostituted individuals. Not only does Amnesty International deny the inextricable link between prostitution and exploitation, violence, and trafficking, they seek to legalize men’s right to purchase sex with impunity – a goal diametrically in opposition to protecting "sex workers" from the gendered exploitation and violence endemic in prostitution.”
Additionally, the Coalition Against Trafficking, a movement that represents many national and international human rights advocates, women’s rights organizations, faith based and secular organizations as well as individuals concerned with the topic, in a letter to Amnesty International, claim that Amnesty International “appears to shape its opinion from the perspective of the HIV/AIDS sector includingUNAIDS. However, defending the health and human rights of women is significantly more complex than the single aim of protecting individuals from HIV/AIDS. Primary goals of UNAIDS and other agencies that support limited harm reduction policies in the sex industry seem far more concerned with the health of sex buyers than the lives of prostituted men and women.” The “limited harm” thinking in the field of prostitution takes for granted that women will always be exploited in prostitution and that all we can do is to limit the effects of this exploitation. However, this approach is both inhuman and brings no tangible improvement in the lives of prostituted women. Exodus Cry, an NGO that fights against sex trafficking underlines the fact that although Amnesty International claims to fight for the “highest possible protection” by proposing a model of full decriminalization, they enable pimps to continue to abuse women with impunity whereas “the true starting point for preventing the abuse of those in prostitution is to recognize that the only way to fully protect women is to get them out of prostitution”.
One attempt to regulate the prostitution industry (which according to ILO is a 99-billion-dollar global industry that causes multiple traumas to people working in it) was to decriminalize prostitution. It is what the Amnesty International report calls for. In 2002, the German government passed a law that decriminalized prostitution. This law led to a spike in the number of prostitutes in the country. Today, Germany has more prostitutes per capita than any other in the continent (even more than Thailand). The idea behind this law (that was passed by the Schroeder government) was to recognize prostitution as a job like any other. In theory, this meant that sex workers would now have the legal rights of other working people (employment contracts etc). However, most of the women working in brothels do not have a contract. They rent the brothel rooms. However, many brothels find ways to take advantage of them financially or put pressure on them to perform acts against their will (like unprotected sex) by taking advantage of a grey area in the law. Other brothels leave the direction of the prostitutes to others who act as pimps. A German government report on this law concluded that this law did not make the sex industry safer for women. In fact, several leading trauma experts from Germany petitioned their government to repeal the 2002 law underlining extensive psychological harms people in in prostitution endure and saying that “Harm reduction is not enough. Governments must invest in harm elimination”. An article by Professors Seo - Young Cho, Axel Dreher and Eric Neymayer indicates that not only the German law did not improve the living conditions of people in prostitution but it also triggered an increase in sex trafficking.
A new law that was passed in 2016 calls for those who pay for sex with victims of forced prostitution to be imprisoned for up to 5 years. It also gives a prison sentence of 6 months to 10 years for exploitation of a person in prostitution or leading/keeping an under 21-year-old in prostitution. Additionally, regulations against trafficking were strengthened. For example, anyone attempting to open commercial premises for prostitution will undergo checks attempting to crack down on the involvement of gangs, traffickers and criminals. As a result, any prior convictions of those who want to open brothels will be examined to prevent traffickers from running such establishments. They also need to present their business concept to the authorities beforehand and respect certain minimum standards on security and health. If these standards are not met, there will be sanctions. This implies that convicted traffickers will no longer be allowed to run a brothel and flat rate brothels will be banned too. Additionally, there is regular registration (every two years/evey year for under 21) as well as health checks (every year/every six months for under the 21) for prostitutes. After registration, they get a permission to work in a certain area (state, commune). Moreover, there is a ban for the advertising of sex with pregnant women, more protection for them and an obligation to use condoms. Finally, prostitutes must register with local authorities, gaining a certificate that must be renewed every two years, and attend an annual health “advice” session.
The effects of prostitution on the psychological well being of women were also highlighted in research conducted by the Dutch government on a similar law that was enacted in the Netherlands. It showed that the emotional well – being of the prostitutes declined between 2001 and 2006 noting an increase in their levels of distress and the use of sedatives. Additionally, only a small minority of municipalities (6%) offered an exit programme to prostitutes. Moreover, the Police Monitor showed that Police control of this sector was very ineffective. Finally, an increased presence of organized crime in the prostitution sector was witnessed. The Dutch National Justice Officer on Human Trafficking Warner ten Kate, concurred in a documentary on prostitution on the Dutch national Television with the title “Jojanneke in de Prostitutie”, that the overall rate of forced prostitution lies around 70%. Forced prostitution can take different forms. Women can either be physically forced to enter prostitution or led into it by men who pretend to be in love by them and work for these gangs. This documentary also revealed the shocking realities of the Dutch red-light district where women in prostitution are often subject to violent and degrading deeds.
Last year, the Dutch political parties, Christian Union, Socialist Party, and the Labor party introduced a legislative proposal to criminalize the purchase of sex when there is a “reasonable suspicion of forced prostitution”. The Draft Bill amended the Dutch Penal Code by delegating to the police and the judicial authorities the possibility to combat human trafficking through the combat of the demand side. It also called for brothels to present their business concept to get a permit. Their purpose is to stop the practice of prostitutes being denied the pay that is due from the client. In many brothels pimps keep most of the money clients give giving at the same time a minimal amount to the prostitutes. The Dutch House of Representatives adopted the Bill and is still under vote in the Senate.
The connection between prostitution and trafficking was also highlighted in a resolution adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe with the title: “Prostitution, trafficking and modern slavery in Europe” (Resolution 1983 (2014)) which states in paragraph 3 that: “Although they are distinct phenomena, trafficking in human beings and prostitution are closely linked. It is estimated that 84% of victims in Europe are trafficked to be forced into prostitution; similarly, victims of trafficking represent a large share of sex workers”. It also states that prostitution “affects the health of sex workers with consequences ranging from increased exposure to sexually transmitted diseases to higher risks of drug and alcohol addiction, physical and mental traumas, depression and other mental diseases.”