Press release: Over 100 European NGOs endorse a statement calling for emergency support to sex workers amid the COVID-19 crisis

The International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE), a network of more than 100 organisations supporting sex workers has published its demands to European institutions and national governments, including emergency income replacement, a moratorium on fines, arrests and prosecution related to sex work and immigration status, access to health care for all and regularisation of undocumented migrants.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on European societies, many organisations ring the alarm on the exclusion of the most marginalised people such as migrants, homeless people and precarious workers from current governmental measures and European policies. Some states have rightfully implemented actions, such as emergency housing, income substitution and regularisation of migrants. However, sex workers, most of them working in the informal economy due to the criminalised and stigmatised nature of the work, have in many countries been completely excluded from social and economic aid. In the absence of European Commission and government attention, sex worker organisations started to self-organise to provide direct support to sex workers – distributing food parcels, cash to cover accommodation and basic necessities – as well as offering emotional and administrative support to each other and formulating their common demands to policy makers across borders.

Sabrina Sanchez, co-convenor of ICRSE and Secretary of the Spanish sex workers’ union OTRAS said: “Like every member of society, sex workers want to contribute to ending this pandemic. However, unable to work and without economic support from the state, how are we meant to survive? The situation is critical. The EU and Member States must include sex workers in the emergency measures and long term recovery plans. Ignoring us and our demands must end now.”

Kate McGrew, also co-convenor of ICRSE and Director of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland added: ‘’In Ireland, the sex worker community has been facing an increased level of surveillance, exploitation and violence since the introduction of the abolitionist Swedish model, the criminalisation of clients in 2017. The crisis is now revealing the huge risks associated with any type of criminalisation of the sex industry: without state protection and labour rights, the most precarious sex workers face the hard choice between abiding the confinement rules by not working and selling sex to feed themselves and their families”.

The demands endorsed by key European anti-trafficking, migrant, LGBTIQ and sexual health networks emphasise that inclusion of marginalised communities must be a central element of public health, social and economic responses. Global health institutions, such as the World Health Organization has for long recommended the inclusion of sex workers in the development and implementation of health measures and the decriminalisation of sex work for maximum impact. ICRSE – in a letter sent to the President of the European Commission and members of the Crisis Coordination Committee – also demands that sex workers’ concerns are mainstreamed in European policies after years of ignoring their voices.

ICRSE warns that, as evidenced by the post-2008 recession, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will increase the number of women and LGBTIQ people selling sexual services to compensate for income loss and reimburse debts accrued during the crisis. Instead of addressing sex work through an ideological and punitive lens, European institutions and states must implement evidence and rights based policies. Ignoring the most marginalised communities could prove not only short-sighted but detrimental to EU efforts to end the pandemic.