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Sex Purchase Ban and Anti-trafficking Measures have Adverse Impact on Migrants

Gillian Wylie and Eilis Ward

Migrant rights and safe migration routes ‘real issue’ in combatting human trafficking

Two new books recently launched by the former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter at Trinity College Dublin look at how the focus on sex trafficking and prostitution has allowed western states to implement stricter border controls for migrants, and particularly women.

Feminism, Prostitution and the State: The Politics of Neo-Abolitionism is edited by Dr Gillian Wylie of Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and Dr Eilís Ward of National University of Ireland (NUIG). It argues that state policy which aims to abolish prostitution through legislation, by criminalising the buyer of sex, will potentially further threaten the rights of those who sell sex.

In the book the authors examine Ireland’s newly adopted policy criminalising the purchase of sex, which made significant headway when Alan Shatter was the then Minister for Justice, despite the Minister’s own scepticism about the proposal. The campaign ‘Turn off the Red Light’, was a major civil society campaign, which drew inspiration from Sweden’s adoption of a similar law in 1999. 

‘Pressure for adoption of this policy has come from radical feminists who understand prostitution and sex trafficking as a form of violence against women,’ says Dr Wylie.

However, the authors believe the law will further compound the risk associated with the trade for many women, particularly illegal migrants, and in their book Dr. Gillian Abel of Otago University provides a study of New Zealand to show an alternative approach.

‘New Zealand is one of the case studies in the book where sex work is legal, and people are protected and have rights and social responsibilities as well’, argues Dr Wylie.

According to Dr Ward, in New Zealand, ‘the act of buying or selling of sex itself is not subject to the law but all activities surrounding it are, such as criminal activities or violence. It holds out the promise of an approach that, at least does not create more problems especially for the most vulnerable women in the sex trade.’

‘The argument is made around public health and fairness’, Dr Wylie explains.

Dr Wylie said that both authors come from a feminist approach which seeks to protect the rights of sex workers. “Sex purchase bans have been shown to impact more harshly on migrant women in sex industries, particularly undocumented migrants who lack strong networks of social support.”

Dr Wylie launched an additional book last week entitled The International Politics of Human Trafficking. It argues that human trafficking has been predominately portrayed as one of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. But workers from all trades are vulnerable to exploitation because of their precarious status in their destination country as a result of being undocumented migrants - not solely because of the nature of their trade.

‘Trafficking can happen for prostitution, sexual exploitation, forced labour, the removal of organs, servitude of any kind, but when you look at laws and campaigning around trafficking it still very much puts the sex question first, so most trafficking campaigns are about opposing the sex trade or trafficking or prostitution.’

Alan Shatter at the launchIn the book she explores the feminist perspectives on sex work which have influenced the way international law was developed at the United Nations. The language of anti-trafficking has also been used in Ireland to make the case for a sex purchase ban, although recent reports also highlight alleged trafficking and exploitation of workers in the fishing and car washing industries. The impact in Europe has been that this language has been used to legitimise stricter border controls. ‘Governments everywhere are using the rhetoric of combatting human trafficking to deprive people of their rights to move and seek refuge,’ Dr Wylie said.

‘The bigger argument I make in the book about human trafficking is, it might not be about who buys or sells sex, but the real issue is who can migrate legally, and which workers have their rights protected?’

According to Dr Wylie, ‘it’s more important to see trafficking and the debates about sex work, through the migration lens because I think it’s part of that bigger question of the fact that so many people in the world today can’t move legally but for one reason or another find themselves having to move and then exploited at the end of their journey because they don’t have the right to be in the country.’           

About the authors:

Dr Gillian Wylie

Dr Gillian Wylie is Assistant Professor in International Peace Studies, and Course Co-ordinator of the PG Dip. in Conflict and Dispute Resolution Studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin (TCD). She has been working in Trinity since 2001, having completed her MA and PhD at the University of Aberdeen in the fields of Politics and International Relations.  Her primary research interest lies in the area of human trafficking for sexual and labour exploitation in the context of globalisation. She is also interested in questions of gender as they shape war and peace. She is a member of the international editorial board of the Journal of Human Trafficking.

Dr. Eilís Ward

Dr. Eilís Ward is lecturer in the School of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) where her expertise is in international relations (ethics, gender issues, cosmopolitan theory), in buddhist social theory and in the trafficking/migration nexus with particular reference to the sex trade. Her current on-going research topics are on buddhist social theory, solidarity and violence and Irish state policy and regulation of the sex trade. She has co-edited two books, published many articles, books chapters and monographs and has given over 40 papers at national and international conferences.                                                                                           

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