Maria Sol is a 36-year-old refugee from Colombia who has been living in Quito, Ecuador, for three years. When she arrived in the country, she knew no one and had no home or job. Faced with limited options for employment, she started earning money through sex work and soon realized that in the refugee community, she wasn’t alone; she was part of a broad network of migrants selling sex in Quito.
Because sex work is legal in Ecuador, Maria and others like her are, for the most part, allowed to conduct their work openly, without fear of being arrested. In other cities such as Kampala, Uganda; Manila, the Philippines; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Islamabad; Skopje, Macedonia; and Kiev, Ukraine, where it is illegal, sex workers conduct their work in the shadows, which makes it more likely that they will be subject to violence and limits their power to negotiate safe sex (PDF).
For refugee sex workers in particular, an arrest for prostitution could jeopardize their asylum claim or result in deportation. The high stakes of getting caught thus force them to take even greater risks, such as working alone or on the least safe stretches of road.
It is an open secret in the humanitarian community that refugees, notably those clustered in cities, often engage in sex work. But international institutions need to do much more than just turn a blind eye to this informal form of employment.
By publicly acknowledging refugee sex workers and establishing support protocols, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international organizations could help them do their work more safely and ensure their rights — to health, information and dignity — are respected.
There are more than 50 million refugees in the world, displaced from their homes because of violence, natural disaster or other crises. While many refugees live in camps, an estimated two-thirds of refugees live on the margins of cities like Beirut, Delhi, Kampala and Quito.
Finding work can be difficult. In many countries, asylum seekers are prohibited from formal employment. Women and gay refugees in particular face hiring discrimination regardless of a country’s refugee employment laws. In Beirut, for example, poor refugees are given three months’ rent, after which they’re expected to be self-sufficient. Many LGBTI refugees, facing discrimination, can’t secure a job and after those three months turn to sex work.
Sex work at times can be safer than other jobs in which refugees are subjected to sexual harassment and abuse from employers and co-workers. Some refugees may feel that sex work is their best option because the pay is better or more reliable. After trying and failing to obtain other jobs, Daniela, a 19-year-old Afro-Colombian trans refugee in Quito, said, “We are allowed to do only two jobs here — in a hair salon or on the street [selling sex], and I can make a lot more money on the street.”
To date, however, the UNHCR has not articulated policies or protocols to meet the concerns of refugees engaged in sex work. “It’s an unknown world,” one UNHCR field officer in Quito told me. “We really don’t know what types of services should be given to them.”
The UNHCR’s silence has created a haphazard approach among its field staff. But access to health and information services should not be at the mercy of personal opinions.
In this vacuum, some refugee sex workers in Quito are referred to a local anti-trafficking organization that takes an explicit anti-prostitution position: Everyone who engages in sex work is presumed to be a victim of trafficking to some degree. The organization teaches them alternative ways to generate income, such as making luxury soap and chocolate to sell at markets. For those looking to leave sex work, such classes may be exactly what they need. But for those not looking to exit sex work, what they won’t receive is information about how to do sex work safely and what health and legal services are available to them.
There are, of course, a number of social and professional networks in Quito for people engaged in commercial sex. RedTrabSex — referring to trabajadoras sexuales, or sex workers — does routine street outreach, distributing packets with condoms, the names of friendly health centers and information on sex worker rights in Ecuador. Marcha de las Putas has created a legal patrol that helps sex workers pool safety knowledge about risky clients, say, or incidents of police harassment.
But such organizations are largely unknown by humanitarian actors all over the world, especially in cities like Kampala and Quito in which refugees and sex work economies converge. The UNHCR and its local partnering organizations, which provide refugee services such as legal assistance and job and housing referrals, can be particularly helpful because they are often the first and main point of contact for displaced people without resources or knowledge of their local rights. It is part of the UNHCR’s mandate to help urban refugees acquire the information and services they need to survive and protect themselves in their new environment. This means not only providing immediate assistance like food coupons and temporary housing but also helping refugees harness and access local resources that will help them stay safe in the long term.
Giving sex workers a say
Other U.N. agencies, such as U.N. Women, the U.N. Development Program, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization, have voiced explicit support for sex workers’ rights. These agencies have endorsed giving sex workers a say in programs that affect them and have sought to ensure their access to the same services provided to others, from comprehensive health care to banking to police protection.
Meanwhile, the UNHCR’s silence has created a haphazard approach among its field staff. “For me, sex work is not dignified work,” another UNHCR staffer in Ecuador told me, adding that she tries to persuade refugees to leave commercial sex work. But access to health and information services should not be at the mercy of personal opinions.
The organization could look to its recent history for a solution. In 2011 the UNHCR issued guidelines on how to work with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex refugees. These guidelines (PDF) instructed staffers to learn about the particular vulnerabilities of LGBTI refugees — such as abuse they often face from family members and fellow refugees and their often systemic exclusion from access to basic health and education services — and to “make themselves aware of their own preconceptions or discriminatory attitudes towards” LGBTI individuals.
The UNHCR should issue similar guidelines for sex workers and leave no room for personal bias. Its staff should be directed to assess their needs, a process that begins by giving them the floor. Because it won’t know how to best offer support until it starts asking.