Social Dialogue Magazine
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Elene Lam, PhD student, School of Social Work, McMaster University. Executive Director, Butterfly (Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network)

How to develop a social justice framework to support migrant sex workers and prevent the harm caused by anti-trafficking initiatives

Human trafficking is a subject of increasing national and international attention. Social workers are involved in developing policies, initiatives, and programs to increase public awareness of trafficking and to identify and protect trafficked victims. “Rescue” by law enforcement and “identification of victims” by services providers are being recognized as effective strategies to protect victims of trafficking in the sex industry. Those interventions may, however, be harmful without an understanding of the complexity of anti-trafficking issues, discourse, and policy. The author will use the anti-trafficking initiatives in Canada as a case study to analyze how such interventions may be harmful to migrant sex workers. They not only increase investigation, surveillance, and stigmatization of migrant sex workers; they also obstruct their access to services, support, and protection. This article will also illustrate how to develop a social justice framework to protect the trafficked victims and prevent the harm caused by anti-trafficking interventions.


Over the past few decades human trafficking has become a subject of increasing national and international attention. It has been acknowledged that social workers are important agents in the effort to ensure the rights of trafficked victims. They are involved in developing policies, initiatives, and programs to increase public awareness of trafficking, and to identify and protect trafficked victims. Those interventions may, however, be harmful in the absence of an understanding of the complexities of the trafficking issue and without critically examining the ant-trafficking discourse, initiative, and policy. It is also essential to recognize that the anti-trafficking interventions can be the tool not only to protect, but also can be to oppress. Many scholars, researchers, sex workers' organizations, and activists argue that anti- trafficking measures in fact perpetrate additional harm on the individuals they are ostensibly trying to protect, and in particular migrant sex workers (De Shalit & van der Meule, 2015; GAATW, 2018; NSWP, 2019).

Harm caused by anti-trafficking measures: experiences from Canada

Migrant sex workers are negatively affected by anti- trafficking legislations and initiatives in Canada, especially when sex work is conflated with human trafficking. Under the guise of anti-trafficking initiatives, raids of sex work establishment by police, by law officers and immigration authorities has increased, resulting in arrest and deportation of migrant sex workers. (CASWLR, 2019; Centre for Feminist Research, 2017; Lam, 2018; SWAN, 2015)

Canada has criminalized sex work since the nineteenth century, inheriting British prostitution laws. Sex workers and sex workers’ organization (Bedford v Canada) challenged that criminal provisions successfully -- including communicating, living off the avails, and bawdy house offences -- on the grounds that it violated section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, covering constitutional rights to life, liberty, and security of the person. The Supreme Court of Canada struck down those three Criminal Code provisions as unconstitutional. However, with the strong lobbying by abolitionists, the Conservative government introduced Bill-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), which defines all sex workers as victims, and prostitution as sexual exploitation, and aims at abolishing prostitution. Under the new criminal laws the third party and the client are criminalized, as well as such sex work related activities as public communication in some areas, advertising sexual services, and so on. The anti-human trafficking argument is a strong one to justify criminalization of sex work. Many studies, though, have identified “the criminalization of sex work, their clients and third parties as a key contributor to violence experienced by sex workers, among other repercussions, including stigma and discrimination” (CASWLR, 2017). Canada has ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Palermo Protocol) in 2002. It has also enacted immigration and criminal laws and released a National Plan to combat human trafficking. Responses to and interventions in trafficking by services providers, law enforcement, and government officials have steadily increased in the past two decades, particularly in the context of the sex industry. Sex workers, especially migrants, are regarded as trafficked victims who need to be identified, rescued, and protected (Lam, 2018; Lepp, 2018).

Many scholars, researchers and sex workers' organizations argue that current anti-trafficking initiatives are harmful to sex workers. They criticize the conflation of sex work and trafficking in anti-trafficking initiatives; the criminalization of sex work and migration; surveillance and arrest of sex workers; racist and discriminatory immigration measures that prevent them accessing safety, services, and support (Butterfly, 2018; CASWLR & PIVOT, 2016; Lam, 2018; Lepp, 2018; Centre for Feminist Research, 2017). The negative impacts -- criminalization, marginalization, and immigration control – of trafficking policy on migrant sex workers have been documented (GAATW, 2018). Migrant sex workers are targeted by law enforcement through surveillance, racial profiling, arrest, detention, and deportation in the name of “rescue”. The agency and human rights of sex workers and migrants are denied under the terms of the currently dominant anti- trafficking framework that conflates sex work with trafficking (Butterfly, 2018; CASWLR, 2018; Lam, 2018; Lepp, 2018; SWAN, 2015; Centre for Feminist Research, 2017).

Conflation of sex work and trafficking

The development of the anti-trafficking discourse, initiative, and public policy is strongly influenced by radical feminist and abolitionist (prohibitionist) groups. They have succeeded in putting sex trafficking on the international and national agenda and influenced policy makers with their economically and politically powerful lobby (Chuang, 2010; O’Connell Davison, 2006). Weitzer (2007) argues the coalition of religions right and radical feminists creates the moral panic by constructing migration and sex work into the danger of society and the problem of trafficking.

International policies on trafficking, including the International Agreement for Suppression of the “White Slave Traffic” (1904 & 1910), the International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women of Full Age (1933), and the Convention on Elimination of Violence against Women (1979), strongly focus on sex work and migration. The definitions of trafficking in international laws are often vague and ambiguous and conflate sex work with trafficking and migration (Chuang, 2010; NSWP, 2019). The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children contextualizes trafficking as organized crime, and focuses on arrest and prosecution, rather than addressing vulnerabilities and protection of human rights. “The Protocol and its emphasis on arrest and prosecution enable laws and policies that target sex workers, third parties, clients of sex workers, and migrant communities generally in the name of ending trafficking” (NSWP, 2019, p.3). Many international and sex workers' organizations oppose the conflation of sex work with trafficking because it is harmful to sex workers, particularly migrants (CASWLR & PIVOT, 2016; GAATW, 2018; NSWP, 2019). It criminalizes sex work (including the sex worker, the third party, and the client); pushes sex work underground; increases surveillance, investigation, arrest, raids, and abuse by law enforcement; increases sex workers' vulnerability to violence and exploitation; and prevents them accessing social services and support (Amnesty International, 2016; CASWLR & PIVOT, 2016; GAATW, 2018; NSWP, 2019).

The conflation of sex work with trafficking is informed by racism and xenophobia. In 2002, Canada introduced provisions in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, and to the Criminal Code in 2015, to criminalize human trafficking and human smuggling. Despite the government's statement that the purpose of the laws is to protect victims, migrants are targeted. Section 185 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations (IRPR) prohibits any migrant (including migrant on tourist, student, refugee claimants and temporary work visas) from engaging in sex work or a related industry, even when they have an open work permit. Migrants are being constructed as danger that they should be controlled in the name of protection against trafficking (Sharma, 2005). Offences relating to sex work and trafficking negatively impact migrant sex workers' rights, increasing their isolation and vulnerability to violence. Bruckert & Hannem (2013) suggest that when sex work activities with a third party and with clients are seen as acts of violence or exploitation, actual cases of violence and exploitation in the workplace go unrecognized, and workers are prevented from improving their conditions and from accessing protections and labour rights.

The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (2019) reports that anti-trafficking measures increase vulnerability of sex workers, decrease their safety, and reduces their abilities to report violence and exploitation (include trafficking). Their working condition is deteriorated. Their case study shows that the migrant sex workers in Spain are being pushed to work in dangerous and unprotected areas, Thereby their vulnerability has increased. Sixty percent of migrant sex workers have reported a variety of experiences of violence, and five Asian migrant sex workers have been murdered in Ontario, Canada. Few, however, would report a crime, because they want to avoid detection and arrest (Butterfly & Immigrant Legal Committee, 2018; Lam, 2018; Santini & Lam, 2017). “The criminalization of third parties and clients, in addition to the immigration prohibitions on migrant sex work, contribute to the violence and other human rights violations that sex workers face by preventing them from taking critical steps (e.g. working together to protect their human rights and ensure their personal safety)” (Lam, Santini & Bush, 2017, p.6). It is harmful to all sex workers, including those who are victims of violence, exploitation and, even, trafficking.

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Problems with the rescue model

“Rescue model” is accepted as a useful measure to rescue and protect trafficked victims (GAATW, 2007; GAATW, 2018, NSWP, 2019). It is an approach supported by many social workers, activists, and government officials. Involuntary involvement of law enforcement may, however, break the trustful relationship sex workers have with service providers and law enforcement, causing more harm. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (2007 & 2018) and NSWP (2019) criticizes the “rescue approach” as not only increasing the marginalization of sex workers and surveillance and abuse by law enforcement: in addition, sex workers, especially migrants, are often arrested and deported.

Anti-trafficking initiatives by law enforcement, such as Operation Northern Spotlight in Canada, force sex workers into involuntary contact with police; the operation often intensifies racial profiling, surveillance, and targeting of Asian migrant sex workers who work in hotels, massage parlours, and other indoor venues, including those who are permanent residents or Canadian citizens (Butterfly, 2018; Lam, 2018; Lepp, 2018; SWAN, 2018). According to the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform (2018), “by casting a wide net, police involved in Operation Northern Spotlight have approached, detained, and harassed numerous sex workers where there has been no evidence of coercion, exploitation, or human trafficking”. It also states that sex workers are left confused, frustrated, and traumatized by their interaction with police. “These initiatives are presented as necessary rescue and protection for migrant sex workers, but in fact, they encourage anti-migrant attitudes, racism, and the criminalization and discrimination of sex work” (Lam, 2018, p2).

Butterfly, the Asian and migrant sex workers' organization, has documented 18 stories of Asian migrant sex workers who were arrested, detained, and deported in anti-trafficking investigations. They reported that they experienced abuse and cruel and inhumane treatment. They also shared their experiences of how the investigation of trafficking and “rescue” turn into anti-sex work and anti-migrant investigations, and how their human rights were violated during the investigation and their detention (Lam, 2018). Mi shared her experiences that “She was detained and locked with chains on her wrists, waist and legs. She felt very humiliated. She understood that she had worked illegally in Canada, but the police were also telling her she was being detained because she was a victim” (Lam, 2018, p.14).

Another migrant sex worker, Fanny, shared her experiences of how an anti-trafficking investigation turned into investigation of her immigration status. She was arrested and deported when she identified herself as working independently.

“They addressed Fanny to ask her who had helped her with booking her hotel room and requested to see her passport. They also asked whether the workers had a boss, or if anyone was coercing them to work... Fanny appeared in court. The judge told the workers that they had been arrested for working in Canada without permission, and denied bail” (Lam, 2018, p.17). It is essential to critically examine anti-trafficking laws and policy, and to recognize the negative impact and harm of the “Rescue Model,” including “anti-trafficking rescues” carried out by law enforcement.

Problems with identification of sex workers by services providers

The radical feminists and abolitionists assume that no women are willing to be involved in sex work. All sex workers are forced, particularly migrants, who are victims who need to be rescued, not only by law enforcement, but also by social workers and other helping professionals. They believe that they are being lured into the sex industry, deceived, and coerced, and are so victimized that they are unable to understand their exploited status, to seek help, or to escape the situation by themselves (O’Connell Davison, 2006; Kempadoo, 2005).

Migrant sex workers organizations, Butterfly (2018) and SWAN (2015), have expressed their concern about the red flags, or indicators, being used by social services providers, including social workers: inability to speak English, fear of law enforcement, and avoiding eye contact. They argue that these indicators not only conflate sex work and trafficking, but also are developed from problematic and racist assumptions about sex workers and migrants. The privacy of migrant sex workers is invaded. The agency and autonomy of sex workers are being denied, and their stories are being distorted. It will also compromise the trustful relationship between services providers, social workers, and sex workers. It creates the barriers for migrant sex workers to access support and services.

Social Justice Approach

Instead of the “rescue approach” that marginalizes migrant sex workers, increases their vulnerability, denies their agency, and results in arrest and deportation, an approach based on social justice and human rights should be adopted to support migrant sex workers and promote their rights. It is important to recognize that sex workers and sex workers' organizations are well positioned to identify and support the victimized and exploited, and to support community initiatives (Canadian Alliance of Sex Work Law Reform, 2019). Sex workers' organizations have proposed initiatives and measures that can empower their members, particularly migrant sex workers, to protect their rights and themselves from violence and exploitation, while assisting them in accessing support and services.

Recommendations include: recognizing sex work as work; increase sex workers’ power through self organizing; ending the conflation of human trafficking with sex work; decriminalization and destigmatization of sex work; ending discriminatory and racist immigration policies, especially those prohibiting involvement of immigrants in the sex industry; understanding the potential harm of anti-trafficking measures; increasing sex workers’ access to justice and social support; and supporting their involvement in decision making processes (Butterfly, 2018; CASWLR, 2019; Centre for Feminist Research, 2017; Lam & Gallant, 2018; Lam & Santini, 2017; NSWP, 2019). Sex work is a controversial issue for many social workers, as suggested by Sen and Baba (2017); it is important for practitioners to be aware of, and to examine, their own values and their positions with regard to it. Listen to the voices of migrant sex workers, and respect their agency, whereby they have the right to make their own decisions about their involvement in the sex industry and to have control over their lives.


Anti-trafficking initiatives and strategies that aim to supress sex work through migrant control, criminalization of sex work, and rescue, actually exacerbate the vulnerability of migrant sex workers, and increase their risk of exploitation and trafficking. “Anti-trafficking legislation and initiatives largely target and punish migrant sex workers, rather than protect their labour and human rights (NSWP, 2019). The assumption that sex work is inherently exploitative limits the understanding of the diversity of the lives and realities of migrant sex workers, and the complexity of their needs and concerns. The conflation of sex work with trafficking, and the resulting aggressive enforcement of laws against sex work and trafficking, cause significant harm to migrant sex workers, and prevent them accessing help and support from social service organizations. (Butterfly, 2018; CASWLR, 2018; NSWP, 2019). Social workers are often the biggest advocates for legal and policy changes and develop interventions to bring about social justice for the oppressed. They may, however, cause more harm without critically understanding the issues and measures. It is essential for social workers to listen to the voices of sex workers and their organizations, and to examine their own values and practices critically.


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Butterfly (2018) Understanding migrant sex workers: Migration and sex work is not trafficking. Canada
Butterfly & Immigration Legal Committee (2018). Work permit restriction on “employment in businesses related to the sex trade”.
Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform & PIVOT (2016) Joint Submission for Canada’s Review before UN Committee on the Elimination of All Form of Discrimination Against Women, 65 Session. Retrieved from pivotlegal
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