As I mentioned in a previous blog, migrant sex workers get arrested in Italy and sent to the CPT not because they are prostitutes, but because they are clandestine (illegal) immigrants. Yesterday, I translated between my Italian colleague at Tampep and a Nigerian woman, a former sex worker, just beginning the denouncement (of her trafficker) process. She had been caught by the police for being without documents and was also falsely accused of a crime. For the crime, she received a two year prison sentence; because she was pregnant at the time, they converted the sentence to house arrest. Nowhere in her judicial story, until beginning the denouncement process, did she have legal problems strictly connected with prostitution.
Before coming to Italy this year, and seeing cases like the one above, I was so confused every time someone told me that prostitution is legal in Italy as the number of sex tourists who are looking for an escort Amsterdam or any neighboring European counties increase every year. In fact, according to a Tampep colleague, most migrant sex workers, when detained for not having documents, believe they are being arrested for having prostituted themselves. If you look at simple summary websites about the legality of prostitution, they say that prostitution in Europe is only “legal” in the Netherlands, while in several other states it is only legal if the prostitute is over 18 years of age. When I embarrassingly asked my boss, Tampep director Rosanna Paradiso, about this, she explained to me that legal was certainly not the best way to describe sex work in Italy; she would say its best described as tolerated.
Let me explain. The law in Italy that regulates prostitution is the 1958 Merlin Law; it intended to close brothels and to “outlaw the regulation, exploitation, and subordination of prostitution.” What this effectively means is that those actually providing the sexual “services” are not committing a crime, but anyone who assists them or takes a share of their earnings can be prosecuted. This has resulted in the sex industry going almost entirely underground and in migrant sex workers experiencing greater vulnerability to the coercion of police. In the last ten years, solicitation has also been decriminalized – offenders are now fined instead of being incarcerated. The 1998 immigration law introduced Article 18 which penalizes those that “contraband, control, and exploit immigrants;” the victims that fall into these categories, the trafficked girls and boys that Tampep helps everyday, are eligible to participate in a program of social protection and the choice to remain to in Italy (but must stop their sex work). In 1999, Italy modified its anti-slavery law, changing article 600 of the criminal code so that the victims of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation and indentured servitude or illegal employment will be protected by the state if they cooperate with the police.
According to Tampep International (TI), “policies on prostitution enacted in Italy are typically abolitionist and tend to criminalize sex workers, and these policies are one of the causes to which can be attributed the spread of various infections.” Abolitionist means that the policies try to eradicate prostitution with the rational either that it is a sin, or a social evil. It is usually seen as a very black and white stance that might not take the complexity of the situation into consideration. Despite the fact that prostitution is not “illegal” in Italy, TI notes a wave of repressive commune-level repressive policies in Italy that took place in 1998-1999 to try and rid the Italian streets of prostitution. The police chased down the sex workers so ferociously in Modena in the late 1990s, for example, that doctors at a free health clinic noted that they rarely see anymore irregular immigrant women and prostitutes. Remember, this does not mean they have disappeared or returned home.
TI: “Above all, repression generates clandestinity, which in turn fuels emergency measures and further repression, both of which in turn fuel greater clandestinity… In fact, clandestinity signifies the total domination of the racketeers, in whose clutches thousands of immigrant women would fall.”
I went to Tampep Torino (TT)’s VP Simona for TT’s position on the legalization of prostitution. First of all, she stressed the importance of remembering the differences between the phenomenon of trafficking and prostitution – in the laws and in the degree of choice that exists for the women in both situations. TT recognizes a woman’s, or man’s, right to chose prostitution as his or her work. TT does not advocate for the criminalization of prostitution, but neither does it wish to see the reopening of brothels. Simona explained to me that with the opening the brothels, while it might look like a positive step – putting everyone together, registering them, having health regulations, a kind of hierarchical exploitation ends up developing inside; the women or men can still be very easily controlled and manipulated within these structures. Reopening brothels would also do nothing for migrant sex workers, or 90 plus percent of the prostitutes in Italy. TT favors, instead, the self-organization of women into cooperatives that work out of their own apartments.
While Italy has discussed reforming its law on prostitution in the last few years, it has never done so; the government is, however, in the process of rewriting its immigration law this year. Simona personally would like to see prostitution become a regularized job, a job for which immigrant women, or men, could get a residence permit (instead of just trafficking victims that decide to denounce their traffickers). While this probably will not be a part of the new bill, other measures will help the many of the women TT assists. Reevaluating the situations that merit expulsion, elongating the periods for which migration quotas are valid, making family reunification easier, and obtaining Italian citizenship faster, are all mechanisms that will make it easier for former migrant sex workers to conquer all the hurdles of finding work and getting the right documents to stay in Italy legally.
So despite the fact that the “exploitation” of prostitutes is technically illegal, and health care is available (to legal and illegal immigrants – although they often do not know this), many foreign sex workers still face huge legal fears everyday due to the fact that they are irregularly present in Italy. The trafficked sex workers were given false documents to come to Italy, and any genuine documents they might have had are often confiscated by their Madams. I learned my first night of Unità di Strada that, in practice, what happens is that the police warn the women the first time they encounter them on the streets without documents, then a second time they might get taken in for fingerprints. At times, the police have been noted to confiscate the girls’ earnings, claiming them to be profits from “clandestine immigration.” In the worst, and unfortunately numerous, cases the girls without documents are sent to the CPT and forcibly deported. The prostitution is tolerated, having no documents is not. As you can see, the immigration battles and debates are a hot topic, not just in the US along the southern border, but in many other higher income countries as well, like Italy.
“Health, Migration, and Sex Work: the Experience of Tampep,” edited by Licia Brussa for the Tampep International Foundation, (Amsterdam: The Tampep International Foundation, 1999), 9-98.
Posted By Michelle Lanspa
Posted Jul 19th, 2009