Judith Sargentini

“Fighting human traffic with stricter laws is counterproductive and dangerous”

Judith Sargentini, member of the Green Left delegation in the European Parliament, opposes new strict rules, advocated by some European countries, concerning border controls and criminalisation of sex work.

After seeing the report by Tobore Ovuorie, don’t you think that human traffic is so bad that Europe simply has to keep it away from its borders?

It is nonsensical to think that stricter controls are going to keep people away. They are already prepared to risk their lives getting into overcrowded little boats.  If you make it even more difficult, all you will do is increase the danger.

But maybe the criminal traffickers will go elsewhere?

Criminals will find a way to go wherever they can make money.  And you cannot call everything ‘human traffic’. There are real refugees on these boats, labour migrants, and sex workers who also come willingly, even if they come with traffickers.

In that case, maybe making sex work in Europe more difficult will help to discourage women from going with smugglers and traffickers? Sweden says that, ever since they criminalised the act of paying for sex work, their country has become less attractive for human traffic.

I don’t believe that at all. Sweden was never a big destination for human traffic anyway simply because it is so difficult to get there geographically. Sex work is still taking place there.  Criminalising something does not mean that it stops to exist. It has only been pushed underground.

But you want to be able to arrest pimps and traffickers who take a woman’s earnings and her passport, right?

Those laws exist already. It is illegal to make money of the trade in other people. There are laws that enable assistance to women, or to anybody who is in Europe illegally, if they are forcibly employed, exploited and/or abused. But you can only do that if victims feel safe enough to ask for that assistance. And the more you criminalise sex work, the less safe they will feel.

I guess many women, being illegal anyway, will worry that they may be seen as complicit in human traffic, especially if they went into sex work willingly.

Even if you agreed to being smuggled for purposes of sex work, that doesn’t mean you agreed to handing over your documents and your money and your right to health care and justice.  You can go to the police to lay charges for such things. The worst that can happen is that you won’t get a permanent residence permit.

From the reports we received, it seems that women who want to escape from their slave masters and go home, do not know that the police will help them. In a number of cases, they asked for help at their (Nigerian) embassies and were worse off. They reported afterwards that somehow their pimps got to know that they had been there.

Regrettably, we cannot do anything about embassies because of diplomatic immunity rules. But local authorities or civil society can reach out to sex workers through health care and advice projects. Simple, warm places where they can get coffee and rest their feet and get their questions answered work very well. But again, you cannot do these things when sex work is illegal.

The Green Left in Europe has acted to legalise seasonal agricultural work, so that migrants can be allowed to come and do work like strawberry-picking. This also enables monitoring of labour conditions and hopefully prevents exploitation and abuse. Could migrants who want to do sex work not be legalised, or at least tolerated, in the same way?

Women from South America can legally travel to Spain on a tourist visa.  Those who want to go into sex work will come in this way: independent of traffickers. They base themselves in Spain or other European countries where sex work is legal or tolerated. They manage to make a life for themselves and send money home to their kids. I won’t say that they are perfectly fine, but it is of course much better than being enslaved.  Legalising sex work immigration altogether is unrealistic I think.  Even though it is the oldest profession in the world, few people would support the idea that we should import sex workers.  We are still having a devil of a time trying to put a legal framework in place for Filippino nannies.

You are going to ask questions in the European Parliament about the Nigerian human traffic story?

Yes. Europe supports many institutions in Nigeria that work to combat human traffic. Since it now seems that some of these institutions are either infiltrated by, or working with, criminal syndicates, we must find out if the use of these budgets is being satisfactorily monitored.

This interview was conducted by Evelyn Groenink, ZAM Chronicle’s investigations editor.