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Violence and threats against sex workers from EU ‘surges since Brexit’

The Independent logo The Independent 20/05/2021 Maya Oppenheim
a person standing in front of a store front at night © Provided by The Independent

Violence and threats of deportation against sex workers from the European Union who are living in the UK have surged since the Brexit vote, according to researchers.

A first of its kind study, carried out by the University of Salford and the English Collective of Prostitutes, a campaign group, discovered 44 per cent of EU migrant sex workers have experienced an increase in the levels of violence they endure since Britain voted to leave the EU.

The findings, shared exclusively with The Independent, found half of EU sex workers say they have suffered increased xenophobic hate crime since the referendum.

One sex worker said violent male customers exploit migrant sex workers’ unsettled immigration status to get away with acting violently or abusively.

“Punters are more confident to report us to the police and home office,” the sex worker said. “Their threats sound like: ‘I am going to get you deported if you don't give me my money back”.

Researchers discovered 54 per cent of sex workers they polled believe their risk of arrest has risen in the wake of the referendum, while two thirds believe their risk of deportation has gone up. Some 44 per cent referred to their relationship with the police as poor or very poor - with some saying they had personally experienced raids and being arrested.

It is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex from each other in the UK, but soliciting and sex workers banding together as a group are outlawed.

Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, a leading campaign group that supports the decriminalisation of prostitution, told The Independent “institutional misogyny” towards sex workers means they are often stigmatised and not believed by the police when they report violence and abuse from customers.

“This is all compounded by the ever-increasing criminalisation sex workers face on a day to day basis,” Ms Adams added.

One sex worker, who also did not want her name used, said: “I was raided after the referendum to leave or remain in the EU was announced.

“I was arrested for brothel-keeping even though I was the sex worker and then the case was dropped against me but they then gave me a letter saying I wasn't allowed to stay in the UK because I wasn't exercising treaty rights.”

Sex workers can claim self-employed status under the EU Settlement Scheme but many struggle to apply due to not being able to prove sustained residence or employment in Britain.

Ms Adams said: “This is because they are often forced into precarious housing where their name isn’t on the lease or the tenancy of the property.

“And also because they may not have bank accounts due to their accounts being shut down as their income doesn’t come from a recognised employer. This is despite the fact they're not doing anything illegal.”

The study includes the accounts of 41 EU migrant sex workers - with researchers noting it is a small sample size because migrant sex workers are highly anxious about taking part in research due to being scared of arrest and deportation.

But Ms Adams said hundreds of EU migrant women have contacted their sex worker led support service raising concerns about violence, xenophobia and threats of deportation they have suffered in the wake of Britain voting to leave the European bloc.

Dr Laura Connelly, a lecturer in Criminology at Salford University involved in the research, said: “We call on all of those concerned about the rights of migrant workers post-Brexit to work with us to: establish sex work as real work, campaign for all EU citizens to be granted automatic settled status in the UK, and for the end to the hostile environment.”

One sex worker said: “I have been threatened by men on the street who said they would attack me. When I went to the police, they said 'are you telling me you're a prostitute because if you are, I am going to arrest you.' I have experienced increasing racism and sexism from the police since the referendum was announced.”

The Independent has previously reported increasing numbers of women are turning to sex work for the first time as the pandemic pushes them into “desperate poverty”.

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