“I used to be a sex worker,” says Pocha. “It’s painful when people discriminate against you.”
After moving from Nigeria to France, Pocha began working with sex worker outreach organisation, Association Paloma. She says working conditions in France are less dangerous than those in Nigeria, but still, in the wake of an unprecedented number of killings of sex workers – mainly migrants and trans women – life is tough, particularly for those who meet clients outdoors.
Paying for sex was criminalised in France in 2016. While there’s no evidence that fewer people are now selling sex, Pocha says it can be harder to find clients.
“At the moment, a lot of sex workers are very frustrated, they don’t get a lot of clients. I see a lot of them every day, they complain, “we don’t get money anymore”.
The lack of clients, and lack of safe clients, does nothing to reduce the industry’s real vector of demand: poverty. “Sex work is not something of choice,” Pocha says. “Some of them have no choices, they are having hard time. I cannot say to them, ‘stop’.”
“I know a lot of girls want to take their life. They don’t have money, some don’t like the job, some they have been beaten and have scars and each time they see their scars, they feel very bad, they feel they are worthless.”
For migrant sex workers, calling the police when they experience violence is rarely an option. “Sometimes they call the police but if they don’t speak good French often the police don’t come. Sometimes, they are scared, they don’t have documents.”
Pocha says she meets many women who have been trafficked. “Some girls don’t know they are going to do prostitution. They’ve been lied to and promised fake things, jobs like hairdressing which don’t exist when they get to Europe.” Others are escaping violence in their native countries. “Some of them have problems at home, problems with police. Some do sex work in Nigeria, they fight with police and want to escape to Europe.”
Working with Paloma, Pocha is able to offer advice and do outreach with migrant sex workers. She liaises with organisations including Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), which recently produced a damning reportinto the criminalisation of clients, suggesting that sex workers are now more exposed to violence.
Pocha says she’s afraid for France’s migrant sex workers. “Sometimes I feel hopeful when I see the other girls. I remember how it was when I worked on the street and I know that I was able to stop. But I feel frightened for the ones who are still there.”
What’s needed more than anything are safe, legal migration routes and access to alternative forms of income. “A solution would be to give documents to all migrants,”Pocha says. “Then the ones who don’t like sex work would have the possibility to do other work.
“A lot of people ask how to help us, but when we explain that we need documents, housing, money to pay our bills and to eat, they say they cannot do anything.”