This week here in Ireland, reports have come to light that women living in direct provision centres have been engaged in survival sex work.
Some context, for those of you unfamiliar with Ireland’s asylum processes:
When people come to Ireland seeking asylum, they are housed in what’s called “direct provision” until their cases are heard. Direct provision is a system where food and accommodation are provided to a person, and they are given a small allowance to live on. Doesn’t seem too terrible at first glance- who wouldn’t want to be given a place to live and 3 meals a day?
It turns out, though, that direct provision isn’t exactly what you’d call cushy. Having no control over the food you eat or when you eat it- and don’t forget, direct provision centres are run by private contractors looking to make a profit, and there is no profit in ensuring that people have access to decent food. If you can’t stomach the food, being barred from making or eating food in your own room. Add to that having no privacy- asylum seekers have to share rooms, either with complete strangers or with an entire family crowded into a single room. Throw in curfews, and being barred from working to support yourself, earn money, or simply pass the time. And doing it all with a measly €19.10 allowance, or €9.60 for children, for everything else that you might need. Imagine trying to live your life on that, or raise your kids and do your best to provide them with some sort of liveable existence.
The direct provision system was set up as a temporary measure, to house people for a few months at most while their asylum claims were being processed. As of this year, 59% of residents have been living in direct provision for over three years, and 9% for more than seven years.
There are more people in direct provision in Ireland than in our prisons. Asylum seekers, unlike prisoners, have done nothing wrong. And asylum seekers, unlike prisoners, live with no certainty over how long it will be before their wait is over, or whether it will end in freedom or deportation.
It’s grim. So grim that residents have recently been hunger-striking to protest the conditions they’re forced to live in.
In the midst of all this, Ireland’s Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald claims to be “shocked” to hear that women in direct provision are engaging in sex work to make ends meet. Responding to these reports, she’s said that she “certainly [doesn’t] want to see any woman in Ireland feeling that the only option for her is prostitution in order to look after her family.” She then went on to discuss calls to criminalise clients of sex workers in Ireland, “watching how Scandinavian countries had handled the issue”, and that ” she would be bringing legislation to Cabinet in the near future”.
Can we talk about how profoundly backwards this is? Not just a little backwards. It’s not that the cart is before the horse here. It’s that the horse has never, in fact, even met the cart. The horse is hanging out in a field somewhere in the countryside and the cart is stuck in a stairwell in an apartment block in a city on a completely different continent to the horse.
Let’s start at the beginning: nothing shocking has happened here.
I’m going to say that again. Even gonna throw in some italics for emphasis. Nothing shocking has happened here. Survival sex work is a thing that economically marginalised people do all the time. It is not exceptional. It is ordinary. It would be shocking if asylum seekers hadn’t been engaging in sex work to get by.
Think that doesn’t make sense? Let’s look at it from a practical perspective, shall we? People will almost always do what they can to create liveable circumstances for themselves. They’ll do what they can to get by. For most of us, that means doing things like getting an education, getting a job. If we can, we get a job that satisfies more than just our need for money to survive- but most of us have taken on crappy work to keep a roof over our head when we had to. Again, for most people most of the time, the work we do is above-board. If you can’t get a full-time job, though, you’ll get by as best you can. You’ll take on nixers here and there and see if you can make it add up. Sometimes above-board, sometimes under the table.
Now, put yourself in a situation where above-board work is explicitly forbidden. You’re also in a situation where you have a curfew, and where you have to eat at a particular time and place every day. Your freedom is severely curtailed. On top of that, you’re expected to get by on less than €20 a week. Imagine that you’ve been in this situation for months or years.
Of course you’re going to do what you can to earn a bit of money. And y’know what is accessible work, that you can do under the table, and that doesn’t require a massive time commitment? Sex work, that’s what. And if we weren’t so keen on exceptionalising sex work- if we acknowledged it as an ordinary thing that people do, and also acknowledged asylum seekers as ordinary people- that would be blindingly, mind-numbingly obvious.
Criminalising clients is not going to help. Anyone.
I lie. Criminalising clients would help one person a whole lot- that person being Minister Fitzgerald. By criminalising clients, she will make herself look like a defender of the oppressed, and someone who’s determined to snuff all that nasty, dirty, filthy sex work from our nice clean nation. It’ll do her wonders in the next election.
The people that it won’t help, in any way, are sex workers. Criminalising clients will not change the circumstances that led anyone to engage in sex work in the first place. It won’t mean that someone has more than €20 to make a life for herself, or only €10 to clothe and provide for her child. It won’t give you somewhere to cook your own food, or a bed in a room with a door you can close and be alone. It won’t give you access to learning, or travelling, or tea with your friends or a night out every so often.
Criminalising clients will simply do one of two things. It could take away the only source of income for extremely marginalised people. Or it could force vulnerable people to work in even more risky circumstances than they had been before.
That’s it. That’s all.
Because- although this doesn’t seem to have occurred to either the Minister or to the people clamouring to be more shocked than each other about this situation- sex work is not the problem.
Sex work is not the problem.
Sex work is a solution to one of the problems that asylum seekers face. It’s also, by the way, a solution to problems that a hell of a lot of people who aren’t asylum seekers face as well. And yes, sometimes people are forced into sex work and being forced into any kind of work is one hell of a problem, but the problem there is the lack of affirmative consent, not the specific thing a person is not consenting to.
The fact that many people are uncomfortable with the idea of buying or selling sexual services is irrelevant. The fact that many of us wouldn’t want to do it as a job is also irrelevant- I dunno about you, but I’ve done a hell of a lot of jobs that felt like my soul and dignity was being gradually peeled away, one layer at a time, and I don’t see anyone clamouring to ban any of them.
The fact that sex work can come with problems of its own is also not a reason to move towards banning buying sexual services- especially since many of those problems (dangerous working conditions, for one) would be exacerbated by criminalisation.
To be shocked that marginalised people do sex work is to display an utterly unforgivable level of ignorance towards both vulnerable people and the nature of sex work itself. And to respond by criminalising clients- the people that sex workers rely on for their income- is a self-serving, short-sighted move which does absolutely nothing to improve the situation of asylum seeker sex workers, and a hell of a lot to make their circumstances even more hellish than they already are.
If you want a situation where nobody in Ireland is forced to do survival sex work? Then don’t specifically exclude them from other kinds of work. End direct provision, allow asylum seekers the right to work in Ireland, or at the very least make sure that nobody is stuck in the asylum system for more than a few months at a time. Don’t shove a poisoned band-aid on a limb you’re slowly sawing off and call it progress.
- Minister ‘shocked’ by reports of direct provision prostitution (irishtimes.com)
- Asylum seekers unlikely to be allowed to work, says Fitzgerald (irishtimes.com)
- Direct Provision: The Beginning of the End? (humanrights.ie)
- “We didn’t come here to be put in prison” (limerickpost.ie)
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