Modern Day Magdalene Laundries in Northern Ireland?

Magdalene Laundries loom large in the history of Irish sex work policy, especially so in the Republic where the last such slave labour institution, the High Park laundry in Dublin, only closed in 1996. Given the same religious orders that ran these laundries continue to dominate over sex work policy in the Republic today, it barely seems appropriate to talk of this as ‘history’ at all. But, moving away from the Republic, has the moral panic over ‘Modern Day Slavery’ in North now created a situation where Magdalene Laundry type institutions could re-emerge in the North?

In 2012 a fundraiser appeared for a new ‘safe house’ to be run by Solas Trust, an organisation with a stated mission to provide residential care, refuge, restoration and rehabilitation for women and young girls who have been trafficked for sexual exploitation and/or prostitution. In a series of slick professional videos the religious couple planning to run the ‘home’ were introduced as Mike and Ros Oman. Mike, who self-styles himself as the ‘father of the fatherless’, talked about wanting to be a father to abused women and girls and help them discover God and experience restoration in Christ. Ros said women would stay in the ‘home’ for 45 days to 2 years.

Soon after this the front page of the Freedom Project Ireland (now renamed Invisible Traffick) said “As more victims are rescued, FPI intends to develop an intensive rehabilitation service to assist victims as they heal.” More recently anti-trafficking charity, Flourish NI, which was launched in 2014, stated it also has an interest in developing exit services for sex workers. A great number of anti-trafficking organisations have sprung up all over Northern Ireland in recent years, and many of these could potentially want to get involved in running exiting services for sex workers.

The DUP has been busy planning a future for sex workers in Northern Ireland for a while now. On 20th March 2014, at a Justice Committee evidence session on their Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill, Lord Morrow and his ‘Advisor’ Dr Dan Boucher of fundamentalist Christian lobby group CARE added a new clause to the Bill to require that support is provided for those who wish to exit sex work. As if yet to grasp how ineffective passing a law against the purchase of sex work will be in terms of actually stopping sex work, Lord Morrow talked of sex workers being left “bewildered”, “like orphans” and “alone to fend for themselves in a big world that they have very little experience of”. His DUP colleague Jim Wells noted that once “their trade dries up” sex workers might “turn to something equally sinister such as drug trafficking” if not provided with “care, settlement, training and sheltered housing.”

Women’s Aid, who have stated they view all sex work as rape and slavery and have supported the DUP Bill to criminalise the purchase of sex, met with Lord Morrow and proposed they are funded an extra £200,000 per annum to provide sheltered accommodation for women exiting sex work. The Justice Committee’s report on the Bill contains a letter from Women’s Aid to Lord Morrow outlining their plans here, and that they envisage women would stay in their ‘care’ for a period of 6 to 12 months after exiting sex work.

The Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill was passed by the NI Assembly on 21st October 2014 including a requirement that the Department of Health provides ‘assistance and support for exiting prostitution’.

Noting that it is the Department of Health, now headed up by the DUP’s Jim Wells, which will be in charge of providing the exit support and assistance services for sex workers, or selecting another organisation to do so, I’d argue that things are looking pretty grim and it is not likely that many sex workers are going to want to volunteer themselves for entry to these new exit services for sex workers that are to be established.

The Bill does specify that support and assistance for exiting sex work “shall be provided with the agreement of the person”, which on the face of it means sex workers will not be forced into exit services, which is of course good.

However, as I highlighted in an earlier post today, the decriminalisation sex workers were promised as part of this Bill remains suspiciously missing from the Bill still. This I think gives rise to a concern that sex workers in Northern Ireland could potentially be forced into exit services in the future by so called ‘diversion schemes’ which would offer them a choice between prosecution or engagement with an exit service.

Could this happen though, would the police arrest sex workers and then divert them into empty exit support and assistance services in order to fill these empty services? I think unfortunately we do need to be concerned about this possibility.

Where’s the decriminalisation Northern Irish sex workers were promised?

An open letter to MLAs

Re Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill

This Bill is due to go to Further Consideration Stage next, where there will not be the opportunity to debate clauses, like clause 6 which criminalises the purchase of sex, but amendments can still be made.

MLAs must now take note that this Bill is not “criminalising the buyer and decriminalising the seller” as it has been so widely advertised. Despite numerous claims to the contrary, including from both the DUP and Sinn Féin, the decriminalisation part has not yet been added to this Bill.

In my own evidence to the Justice Committee on this Bill on 30th January 2014 I asked Mr Jim Wells and Mr William Humphrey of the DUP to outline where in the Bill decriminalisation is offered as they were claiming. I asked this question three times before the Deputy Chairman Mr Raymond McCartney of Sinn Féin intervened to stop me asking it further. No answer was forthcoming.

Sinn Féin have also promised sex workers decriminalisation. Ms Caitríona Ruane of Sinn Féin speaking at the last debate on this Bill on 20th October 2014 stated “I believe that we should criminalise the purchaser of sex and decriminalise women”. Mr McCartney stated at the same debate that “Throughout our deliberations, particularly at Committee Stage, we had the view that, if we were doing this as an attempt to say on behalf of the Assembly and, indeed, the people whom we represent that we had a very clear issue with prostitution, we should be taking steps to decriminalise the actual prostitution.”

Amendment 29 – to repeal the laws against loitering or soliciting for purposes of prostitution – was proposed by Mr McCartney and passed at the last debate. Mr McCartney further said of this amendment “It is to send a very clear message to the people who are being exploited that in no way will we permit or allow a process of criminalisation when we are trying to tackle this complex issue. That is what was behind the framing of that amendment.”

But Amendment 29 only decriminalises outdoor sex workers. The independent research on sex work in Northern Ireland commissioned by the Department of Justice and published on 17th October 2014 estimated only 20 people engage in outdoor sex whilst an estimated 330 indoor sex workers are available every day. Further, as Lord Morrow of the DUP stated during the last debate, “According to data that has been received from the PSNI under a freedom of information request, not a single arrest was made for soliciting for the purposes of prostitution between 2009 and 2013”. I’d further note that ASBOs (Anti-social behaviour orders) can be used against outdoor sex workers, so actually the laws against loitering or soliciting for purposes of prostitution only exist at present in addition to other laws that can also be used against outdoor sex workers.

No amendment has been put forward to decriminalise indoor sex workers, who can be criminalised by brothel keeping laws unless they work alone. As UglyMugs.ie has recorded sex workers in Northern Ireland are being targeted by criminal offenders who threaten, abuse, assault and rob sex workers, because they are forced into the vulnerable position of being lone workers by brothel keeping laws. UglyMugs.ie recorded 233 incidents of crime against sex workers that occurred in Northern Ireland in the 5 year period between 23rd September 2009 and 22nd September 2014, only 5.2% of which were reported to the PSNI, in no small part due to this criminalisation.

Indoor sex workers represent an estimated 94.3% of sex workers in Northern Ireland according to the recently published independent research. Further indoor sex workers are the group who are being criminalised currently. I cite as an example the 2012 case of the PSNI discovering a Portuguese and a Brazilian woman working together as sex workers in a Belfast apartment. The two women were both convicted of brothel keeping and jailed for two months each. This was also despite a third party, Robert Weir, being charged with controlling them. The following month three Polish women who were found to be working together were convicted of brothel keeping. In that case it was stated that no third-party was involved.

The Minister of Justice, Mr David Ford, pointed out the lack of decriminalisation for indoor sex workers in Amendment 29 during the last debate on this Bill and stated “It may be that those who propose that particular amendment might wish to revisit some of those aspects, because it seems to me that there is a difference between two women working together in the interests of protection and those who are working in a brothel controlled by pimps.”

An amendment must now be put forward and passed at the Further Consideration Stage to ensure the brothel keeping laws are no longer used against sex workers. If Northern Ireland fails to do this it will remain a place where sex workers are criminalised, despite a new law having been brought in to criminalise the purchasers of sex by two parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin – who clearly promised sex workers decriminalisation along with this new law.

Reclaim the Night, Belfast, 29th November 2014

Reclaim the Night, Belfast

Reclaim the Night, Belfast are organising a march on the night of the 29th November. The is believed to be the first Reclaim the Night event in Belfast. The march will be at 7pm, through the city centre, stopping briefly at the Laganside Magistrates Courts. Groups will meeting at Albert Clock and the march will end at Writer’s Square. There will be various speakers. The Facebook event page is here.

UglyMugs.ie has confirmed that sex workers and sex worker allies are welcome at this event.

Reclaim the Night is an international movement against sexual violence. The marches take place at night as a protest against victim-blaming which tells women to stay off the streets at night if they don’t want to be at risk of sexual violence or harassment.

The first UK Reclaim the Night march was held in Leeds in 1977, at a time where the “Yorkshire Ripper” was terrorising the north of England and the police had been advising that, to avoid attack, women should stay inside after dark.

In Dublin in 1978, a Woman Against Violence Against Women march was held and following it a small group went down to the Canal to show solidarity with sex workers there. However the sex workers were reportedly annoyed at the women disrupting business by coming down to their patch to ‘Reclaim the Night’, and chased them away!

Recently published independent research into sex work in Northern Ireland estimated there are now only about 20 sex workers working outdoors in NI, whilst about 330 are working indoors and advertising online daily. However there is great concern that violence against sex workers in NI will now increase, as the NI Assembly recently passed the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill, including Clause 6 which criminalises the purchase of sex, despite the independent research showing only 2% of sex workers supported criminalisation of clients and 61% of NI-based sex workers thought it would make them less safe.

Belfast Sex Worker Coffee Evenings

On Tuesday 21st October the Northern Ireland Assembly voted to criminalise the purchase of sex, despite independent research showing only 2% of sex workers supported this move and 61% thought it would make them less safe. We can expect this new law to come into force next year.

Many sex workers were devastated by this news and are now worried about the future.  We are organising a series of informal meetings where sex workers can discuss this and make plans for the future.  The first is 8pm on Wednesday 29th October 2014.  The format will be casual meet up for coffee, address on request.  Flyer here: http://uglymugs.ie/wp-content/uploads/belfast-coffee-evening.pdf

Sex Worker Statement on Passing of Clause 6

The following statement on the passing of Clause 6 has been written by sex workers who work in NI. UglyMugs.ie has been asked to publish it, especially as there isn’t a NI sex workers organisation to do so.

“We, as sex workers are devastated to hear about the news that the purchase of sex will be criminalised in Northern Ireland under the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill. This new bill will only drive sex work further underground and make it more dangerous for the most marginalised sex workers.

The Northern Ireland Assembly are not listening to current sex workers who will be affected by this new legislation and the evidence released by the Department of Justice on Friday backs this up. 98% of sex workers surveyed are against this new law and 85% working in the industry said it would not reduce trafficking.

We ask the Northern Ireland Assembly to reconsider this law and look at the evidence. This law will not reduce trafficking and will make working conditions more unsafe.”

Protest at Stormont – Monday 20th October

STOP CRIMINALISATION: SAFETY FIRST

Sex workers and allies

PROTEST AGAINST THE CRIMINALISATION OF THE PURCHASE OF SEX.

Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Monday 20 October, 4pm-5pm.

On Monday 20th October the Northern Ireland Assembly will vote on the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill. This Bill includes a clause which will criminalise the purchase of sex.

This Bill has been put forward by the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) backed by CARE (Christian Action Research and Education). Sinn Féin, the second largest party, is believed to have now decided not to not oppose it. Thus it will pass.

The Department of Justice published independent research into prostitution in Northern Ireland on Friday 17th October clearly showing that criminalising the purchase of sex will not achieve the stated aims but will harm sex workers. However Northern Ireland’s politicians are ignoring the evidence and throwing sex workers under the bus.

Sex worker rights campaigner Laura Lee has called for a protest.

Red umbrellas and sex worker rights banners are encouraged. Sex workers are highly stigmatised in Northern Ireland and thus masks are welcome. Masks will also be made available on the day.

Some of the findings of the recently published Northern Ireland research are:

Only 2% of sex workers support criminalising the purchase of sex.

Sex workers worry that criminalisation of clients will lead to a potential decrease in security, worsen working conditions and increase risks of violence and other abuse. Another common concern is that criminalisation of clients will lead to the increased involvement of organised crime groups and ‘pimps’ in the sex industry;

61% of NI-based sex workers feel criminalising the purchase of sex will make them less safe.

There is likely to be significant difficulties with enforcement of the law. PSNI officers who took part in the research noted that, in their opinion, a sex purchase ban would be difficult to enforce and would be largely ineffective in reducing the level of trafficking in sexual exploitation.

85% of sex workers believe the law will not reduce sex trafficking.

Only 8% of respondents to the client survey said it would make them stop paying for sex altogether.

Stigmatisation and the related fear of exposure constitutes a very significant issue for the sex workers who took part in the study, it ranked above all other concerns.

The full research report is available here:
http://www.dojni.gov.uk/index/media-centre/independent-research-into-prostitution-in-northern-ireland-published.htm

The facebook page for the event is here:
https://www.facebook.com/events/1566297883590643/?ref_newsfeed_story_type=regular

Laura’s blog post about the protest is here:
http://lauraslifeandthoughts.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/protest-at-stormont-monday-20th-october.html

Selling Sex: politics, activism & lived experience

Public Seminar and Q&A

4pm, Thursday 16th October 2014, Foundation Building, Room F1030, University of Limerick

Laura Lee, an Irish sex worker and activist based in Glasgow will discuss the realities of
working as a sex worker in Ireland. As an Irish sex worker with 20 years’ experience, Laura
will reflect on some of the common myths and perceptions around the world of sex work, and
discuss the changes that she has seen in the industry over that time. Finally, Laura will point
to possible policy changes that might help ensure safer working conditions for those who sell
sex.

Lucy Smith will give a short presentation on the work of Ugly Mugs. Ugly Mugs is a scheme
that aims to improve the safety of sex workers in Ireland and reduce crimes committed
against them, by bringing sex workers together to share information about potential dangers.
Lucy will discuss the scheme, and the political difficulties encountered in attempting to
secure safer working environments for those working in the sex industry.

All welcome. Official flyer is here: http://uglymugs.ie/wp-content/uploads/Seminar-Laura-Lee.pdf

Letter to the Garda Commissioner

Immigrant Council of Ireland Mothers and Daughters Lunch FlyerUglyMugs.ie sent the following letter to the Garda Commissioner today:

Dear Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan,

CC Garda Press Office

We are writing to express our disappointment at the news that you will be guest speaker at the Immigrant Council of Ireland’s Mothers and Daughters Lunch on 26 September 2014.

This news was announced by the Immigrant Council of Ireland via their Twitter account @immigrationIRL at 16:51 on 5 September 2014 with the tweet: “Delighted Garda Commissioner Noirín O’Sullivan is guest speaker at our Mothers and Daughters lunch to support victims of sex trafficking RT”

We would like to draw your attention to the fact that the Immigrant Council of Ireland is running the “Turn Off the Red Light” (TORL) campaign, a lobby of approximately 70 organisations led by the Immigrant Council of Ireland created for the purpose of lobbying the Government to bring in new laws to ‘end prostitution and sex trafficking’ in their own words, most notably a new law to criminalise the purchase of sex between consenting adults.

For the Garda Commissioner to be guest speaker at this €100 a ticket fundraising event suggests she supports the TORL campaign. We feel this is an entirely inappropriate political position for Garda Commissioner to have taken and would ask her to pull out of this event.

We would also like to highlight that the Immigrant Council of Ireland has repeatedly advertised this Mothers and Daughters Lunch as being an event to fundraise for “women and girls who are victims of sex trafficking and prostitution”. Attached is an official flyer for the event to demonstrate this.

We have been unable to confirm that the money raised will indeed be going to such ‘victims’. We suspect the money will actually be going towards the TORL political campaign to further criminalise sex work. Under the Statement of Guiding Principles of Fundraising, fundraisers are required to spend money for the purpose for which it was raised and answer any reasonable questions about their fundraising. The Immigrant Council of Ireland has not responded to our questions re their fundraising here. As guest speaker at this event is the Garda Commissioner able to comment on the fundraising issue, will the money raised be going to ‘victims’ as advertised or will it actually, as we suspect, be going to the Immigrant Council of Ireland and used to further their political lobbying?

We write this letter as an organisation that has recorded 5,565 incidents of abuse or crime against sex workers in Ireland since 2009. Sex worker victims of crime are generally accustomed to receiving no support from An Garda Síochána and it strikes us as markedly inappropriate that the Gardaí’s disinterest in crime against sex workers is matched with such keen support of a political campaign to further criminalise sex work.

Yours sincerely,

UglyMugs.ie