The Intersection of Prostitution, Migration and Trafficking

The intersection of female migration, trafficking and prostitution was a core issue for the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) and TORL. At the present time, women constitute nearly half of the estimated 195 million migrants in the world and, not surprisingly, worldwide trends indicate a flow of women migrating from poorer, less economically advanced regions and countries into richer, post-industrialised areas of the world. The factors driving women to migrate are primarily poverty, war, conflict and socio-economic policies which have increased gender inequality and lowered social protection for women.1

For millions of women, the resources and possibility to legally migrate and the opportunity to enter regulated employment in advanced economies is minimal, forcing them to take huge risks, place themselves in debt, pay huge sums to intermediaries and smugglers for false papers and transport routes to escape situations of deprivation. It is within this context that vulnerable girls and women are easily targeted by traffickers who coerce and deceive in order to directly supply human beings as a commodity for sale and for exploitation, in co-operation with international networks and organised criminals in the place of destination.2 Consequently, the migration routes of the ‘transnational sex trade’ lead from the Global South to the North and increasingly in Europe from the poorer Eastern states to the wealthier Western EU member states.3

The burgeoning sex industries of destination countries have become one of the easiest and most lucrative locations in which to supply cheap female labour due to a number of factors including: the ever increasing demand for a fresh supply of girls and young women; the level of organised crime and illegal activity within the sex industry; the high profit margins in the organisation of the sale of commercial sex; and the potential for multiple occasions of use and exploitation.4 In this context, it is not surprising that migrant women are increasingly over represented in every aspect of prostitution and the ‘sexual entertainment’ sectors of western countries. Migrant women now make up between 80% and 90% of those in prostitution in Italy, Spain, Austria and Luxembourg, and between 60% and 75% in Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Greece, Denmark and Norway.5 The ICI research revealed a similar trend in Ireland, with up to 97% of women advertised for sale on the internet being migrant women from over 51 different countries.

TORL demonstrated that in the present era of globalization, migration and prostitution are structurally linked, and that the laws adopted in the past to regulate prostitution have to be revisited with a new lens, informed by migration. Prostitution thrives on inequality, violence and criminality, and trafficking for prostitution is the most prevalent form of human trafficking in Ireland as elsewhere. Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation represents on average 75% of the detected trafficking crime in Ireland. EUROSTAT (2013, 2014) reports indicate that sex trafficking accounts for 69% of the identified human trafficking cases in the European Union. Overall 80% of all victims are women, while their proportion climbs up to a staggering 95% within the crime of sex trafficking. Adopting a gender neutral approach to migration puts migrant women at a disadvantage, in the same way that a gender neutral approach to combatting human trafficking fails very vulnerable sexually exploited women.

The legal team of the ICI have played a key role in TORL, highlighting the experiences of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and women in prostitution who are accessing legal advice and legal representation.

Statement from the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) legal services team

The Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) legal services started seeing victims of trafficking in 2005 prior to any State recognition of trafficking or the provision of any legislative response. The facts were compelling and concerning. This case work resulted in the organisation prioritising the issue and seeking law reform to protect victims of trafficking and end demand. It has been a particular strength of the ICI’s lobbying position that it is informed by the experiences of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and women in prostitution accessing legal advice and representation services, provided by its Independent Law Centre. The Law Centre provides a specialist, holistic legal representation service to migrant women who have been trafficked to Ireland.

The Law Centre has advised and represented women on issues such as regularising their immigration status, their rights under domestic and EU law including free movement and access to social welfare. Many of the women presenting were vulnerable EU migrants, some of whom were not aware of their rights to engage in lawful employment in Ireland and other EU Member States and others who were in prostitution due to extreme poverty and the inability to access social benefits. Others entered Ireland as international students but have not been able to afford to continue their studies, especially if attending ‘rogue’ colleges that have been closed down.

The Law Centre has also acted for many clients who were victims of trafficking and provided advice or representation to 31 victims in 2015. The ICI represented women from the time of considering the safety implications of escaping from a situation of exploitation, through formal victim identification procedures, to securing more long term immigration status and being granted Irish citizenship. The core of the ICI’s legal work has been focused on victim identification by the State, securing immigration status and representing clients through the asylum process where appropriate. Being granted appropriate migration status acts as a key to unlocking access to rights, enables women to start to recover and establish a permanent future. The ICI has consistently challenged the Department of Justice and the Gardaí on the significant delays and inadequacies in the Irish victim identification procedure. The ICI has also represented women across a broader range of matters that are essential to rebuilding women’s lives. These include consular supports and applications for travel documents, reporting racist incidents, access to social welfare payments and, most importantly, family reunification with their children. Of critical importance for our clients’ future access to employment and citizenship applications, the ICI has made representations to ensure that clients are not prosecuted or that criminal convictions entered against them prior to identification as a victim of trafficking are not held against them.

Many of ICI’s clients who are victims of trafficking experienced some vulnerability or placed their trust in someone, which was exploited by traffickers promising employment opportunities as carers or nurses or in education. Many experienced extreme poverty in their country of origin. Some are orphans who had lost any family support network and found themselves alone. They tend not to have had many educational opportunities. Many of those of African ethnicity have strong beliefs in the power of voodoo to control them. Most women were informed they had enormous bills to repay for their travel to or across Europe.

Through advocating for individual rights, the ICI gained insights into the degradation and abuse women experienced in prostitution, the methods used to coerce and threaten women and maintain their vulnerability as well as the fear and emotional and physical pain that remain with many women for years after exiting. Case work was stark in highlighting that while others profited from the exploitation of clients, many clients themselves experienced ongoing financial hardship because of loss of time, loss of earnings, missed educational opportunities, missed early career development and sometimes criminal convictions relating to prostitution. Further, it showed the reality for women of living with the negative health implications of being forced to have frequent and unprotected sex. The Law Centre heard stories of the daily humiliations of being forced to do the ‘bad job’, the violence perpetrated against women on a regular basis, and the pain of recurring memories of men who raped them. The case work also evidenced the fact that some clients were groomed as minors and exploited in the sex industry as young teenagers.

Direct representation of women, experts in their own experience, not only informed the lobbying work but also lent it weight and credibility. It made it possible to point to case studies at critical moments in the campaign. One of the Law Centre’s clients, ‘Anna’, was featured in TORL’s advertising, postcard and online campaign to highlight the reality of prostitution and the young age at which most girls enter prostitution. ‘Anna’ was a client of the ICI for over six years. She was represented initially in relation to revoking a Deportation Order that had issued against her and being granted permission to reside in Ireland, and later in relation to family reunification, travel documents and access to child benefit. In a piece for camera for the ICI’s Moving Lives iportrait ‘Anna’ describes being sold by her brother-in-law as a 15-year-old child into prostitution in Ireland. The strong relationship that was built up between the ICI and ‘Anna’ enabled this story to be told on an anonymous basis to protect the client. ‘Anna’ explains that when she was told what she would have to do, ‘I started crying and screaming and this went on for about seven years’. She outlines her experience: ‘I used to work from 12 in the daytime until 6 o’clock the next day. That was like seven days a week… They could see I was a little child… There was a guy holding me by the throat. I couldn’t breathe for half an hour… They used to beat me up’.


Statement from Stan Kennedy, Founder of the Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI):

The exploitation, abuse and violence which lies at the heart of Irish prostitution and sex trafficking really came to my attention about a decade ago.

The team at the Immigrant Council of Ireland alerted the board that they had become aware of cases of women tricked into coming to this country with false promises of a dream life only to end up in brothels.

In these early days there was no way of knowing of whether the cases being referred to the frontline services of the Council were unusual or whether we were just seeing the tip of something which was widespread.

I will always remember the stories of those first women. Each followed almost a set pattern and had a level of brutality and exploitation which the Immigrant Council had not seen before.

Often the women were sold as young teen girls by a relative to a criminal gang. She is deliberately kept in the dark by all involved and heads to the airport with her dreams of a new life in rich Ireland.

Unaware of what lies ahead the young women walk through security and immigration at Dublin Airport still believing that they are at the beginning of something new and exciting.

Greeted in the arrivals hall the victims are lured on by a trafficker or pimp who continues the pretence until they reach the car park. It is here that the dream turns into a nightmare.

Papers, money and passports are all taken. The young girl in a foreign country is told that her family now owes a debt and she must pay it off – within hours she is a brothel being raped repeatedly day in day out.

Faced with language barriers, unconnected from her family and friends and isolated in a brutal world she is given no hope of help and is trapped.

Like others on the board I was of course shocked by what I heard and together we sought to find a solution to what was happening and the complex issues it raises.

While there were different views on how to move forward we did all agree that the first step must be to establish what is the extent of the abuse and the nature of the criminal enterprise which lies behind it.

In 2009, after a year-long investigation, the Immigrant Council published the research“Globalisation, Sex Trafficking and Prostitution: The Experiences of Migrant Women in Ireland”. The findings were shocking, up to 1,000 women for sale online every day, a criminal empire making €180m a year and migrants accounting for 90% of prostituted women.

This research was key – its findings were rock solid, could not be disputed and formed the basis for a national debate on prostitution.

Around the same time we became aware of discussions about events in Sweden where a new approach was being taken to cut demand for these crimes.

The research and the news reaching us out of Sweden was enough to solidify the board of the Immigrant Council, of course it is also important to note that our frontline services were continuing to record new cases.

To my mind as an organisation which prided itself on confronting difficult challenges not only had we no option but in fact we had a duty to act.

It is always very hard to establish an exact date for when Turn off The Red Light started because other organisations were also becoming aware of the issues involved and carrying out their own work and research in the area.

We decided that a unified approach would deliver the best results – and so a core group of Ruhama, other frontline professionals as well as groups like the Irish Country Women’s Association began to form.

The early days were exciting, we successful brought our arguments to Leinster House and to huge national organisations like the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

The momentum also saw male allies come on board – and publically declare their suport.

This is course did not go un-noticed by the media and in 2012 an investigation by RTE Primetime put sex trafficking top of the political agenda.

Six years after our first cases – the issue was now in play.

The broadcast, together with the momentum and research we had created pushed the Government into a full review of the law, Oireachtas Committee Hearings and ultimately the Sexual Offences Bill 2015.

We thought we were there, but of course politics is not a fast game. We were stalled along the way and it was important to stay focused and motivated.

Keeping a campaign resourced and funded is one thing but what the records will never properly reflect is the thousands of work-hours, the miles travelled to engage politicians and partners and the relentless engagement with media.

As a board we were there to guide and motivate the team at the Immigrant Council through the setbacks and the victories.

As I write we are once again stalled this time at the final hurdle – but history is on our side. Internationally the debate on prostitution and sex trafficking has changed forever, the only question is whether Ireland will be a leader or be forced into acting down the road.

Either way doing nothing was never an option – we owe it to our clients to never give up and in challenging moments of this campaign it was their experiences which encouraged us to go on. 



1United Nations Economic and Social Council (UNESCO) (2004). Economic causes of trafficking in women in the UNECE Region. ECE/AC/.28?2004/10. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (2006). State of the World Population: A passage to hope, women and international migration. UNFPA.
2Bales, K. (2003). Because she looks like a child. In B. Ehrenreich and A. Russsell Hochschild (Eds.) Global women: Nannies, maids and sex workers in the new economy (pp. 207-230). London: Granta Books. D’Cunha, J. (2002). Legalising prostitution: In search of an alternative from a gender and rights perspective. In Seminar on the effects of Legalization of Prostitution Activities: A critical analysis organized by the Swedish government, 5-6 November, Sweden.
3Marttila, A.M. (2008). Desiring the “other”: Prostitution clients on a transnational red-light district in the border area of Finland, Estonia and Russia. Gender Technology and Development, 12, 31-51.
4Monzini, P. (2005). Sex traffic: Prostitution, crime and exploitation. London: Zed Books.
5Tampep (European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers) (2009). Sex work in Europe: a mapping of the 25 European countries. The Netherlands: TAMPEP International Foundation.