Migration & Sex: Trafficked Humans or Sex Workers?

June 17, 2015

This resource includes a handbook and report related to contemporary debates about women migrants and sex. The goal for this debate is to complicate stereotypes that depict women migrants whom engage in sex as either victims or agents.


The relationship between migration, sex, and labor is complicated and controversial. In 2001, the European Commission estimated that each year over 120,000 women and children cross into western Europe from eastern and southern Europe as part of the sex industry. Some activists use the term "human trafficking" or "sex trafficking" to describe the experience through which mostly women and children move across borders to engage in sex. These activists against "human trafficking" depict migrant prostitution as involving coercion, deception, abduction, and exploitation. This view stresses the involuntary or forced nature of migration and sexual practices; women migrants are depicted as victims of violence and in need of saving by government intervention and international organizations.

Other activists, however, utilize the term "sex worker" to focus on migrant prostitution as a form of employment, in which money is exchanged for a service rendered. Condemning the public stigmatization of sex workers, such advocates depict sex workers as agents, while emphasizing the right of migrant women to control both their own bodies and employment decisions. They call on the public and governments to secure safe labor conditions and legal protection for migrant sex workers.


The following resources provide two different perspectives on the "human trafficking" or "sex worker" debate.

  1. In 2006, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) prepared a handbook on connections between prostitution and sex trafficking to promote awareness about migrant prostitution. 
    PDF iconThe Links Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking: A Handbook.pdf
    O'Connor, Monica and Grainne Healy. 2006. Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) and the European Women's Lobby (EWL) on Promoting Preventative Measures to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings for Sexual Exploitation: A Swedish and United States Governmental and Non-Governmental Organisation Partnership, p. 1-40.
  2. Excerpt from the Sex Workers in Europe Manifesto, written and endorsed by sex workers from 26 countries at the European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration in Belgium in 2005.
    PDF iconSex Workers in Europe Manifesto.pdf
    International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe. 2005.The Sex Workers in Europe Manifesto. Elaborated and Endorsed by 120 sex workers from 26 countries at the European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration. 15 &16 October, p. 1-11.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do the documents approach the debate about women migrants and sex differently? What arguments do they use to justify their positions? In what ways do these organizations utilize the term "human rights" to discuss migration and sex?
  2. What stereotypes about men, women, and migration for sex do you see the documents challenging or supporting?
  3. How might we use these documents to complicate the divide between activists who view these women as victims and those who view these women as agents? Can they be both at the same time? How does the debate over sex workers shed light on disparities between economically advantaged and disadvantaged countries?

Suggested Readings

Beeks, Karen and Delila Amir. 2006. Trafficking and the Global Sex Industry. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Brennan, Denise. 2004. What's Love Got to do With it? Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kempadoo, Kamala, Jyoti Sanghera and Bandana Pattanaik. 2005. Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Samarasinghe, Vidyamali. 2008. Female Sex Trafficking in Asia: the Resilience of Patriarchy in a Changing World. New York: Routledge.