Prostitution and migration: the migratory condition and the African community
4.2.1 Legal status and access to services
The migration status of the women came up several times in conversations and although the “dichotomy legal-illegal’’ (Agustin. 2006, p. 117) is generally preferred, the reality here is far more complex. The women have long- or short-term residence papers, citizenship, humanitarian visas, running asylum applications, etc. We also observed that many women have residence status in other European countries, and while they can freely move around in the Schengen area, they may only reside or work in their country of residence. Since prostitution is not legalized and officially qualified as “work”, they are tolerated behind the windows in Brussels. However, the women don't easily find access to the public health care system and are denied fundamental citizens’ rights. Furthermore, changes in migration laws, including those in other European countries,6 also affect these women.
Access to rights and services
Research shows that tighter migration laws have increased the vulnerability of certain migrant groups (Sassen, 2003), and this is also the case for Nigerian women in Europe (Olaniyi, 2011). It can lead to experiences of isolation and stress related to the fear of arrest (and deportation), even in the red-light district of the carrés. This is exacerbated in the cases of those with no legal residence status as they have limited access to (1) justice and protection, (2) work, and (3) health care.
First, we noted that the women have limited access to justice as the label “illegal” is often used interchangeably or confused with “criminal”. “If they are undocumented, [...] they will not be treated as victims of abuse but as violators of the laws governing entry, residence and work” Sassen argues regarding women in prostitution (2003, para. 23).
“1 have residence papers from France, so I speak some French. I can call the police when I am in trouble, they will understand. [...] Sometimes when they come, the girl who called for help ends up being arrested. The Moroccan guys taunt them saying T have a Belgian passport; 1 have Belgian papers; what do you have? Call the police, I am not afraid, nothing will happen’. This is harder on the girls who work without papers because they know that they cannot call for help, and the guys know it too.”
(Roxy, field notes, June 2019)
Many women confirmed what she says, saying that they do not report incidences of violence to the police. They also mentioned the language barrier that complicates their access to the police because the person who answers the phone when they call for help often only speaks French.
- 1 asked Gold if she calls the police when she's in trouble. “The police? (laughing) They won’t do anything, just ask for our documents.” She seems to find our question amusing.
- (field notes, January 2019)
“There was a white man who was very drunk and fell down hard. A policeman came, ran to get water and called his colleagues. If it was a black man, the first thing would have been 'give me your document’.”
(Anjie, field notes, May 2019)
“Unregistered or clandestine prostitutes have always tended to be afraid of reporting cases of violence by customers, for they risk official punishment - and deportation in the case of illegal immigrant women” (Rodriguez Garcia, 2014, p. 41). This is not without reason. To report a crime or an act of (sexual) violence, the women explained that they have to submit their official ID, and this discourages them from doing so, especially if they are undocumented.
Second, the women cannot easily access the formal labour market. Some of them expressed their desire to do “another kind of job”, however the labour market in Belgium has limited options. The women who work in the carrés are often constrained by insufficient knowledge of French or Dutch, no work experience that they can account for, a low level of education or education that is not highly valued in Belgium, and/or no valid work permit.
Usi calls me over and tells me that she needs a job. She says that she is really good at cleaning. While she says this, she is mopping the floor of her carré and about to begin work. She says she can work as a cleaner and will work really hard. We’ve known her for a while now so I ask if she has any documents and she says that she doesn’t.
The options of migrant women are often limited to cleaning jobs and domestic work, which can be burdensome, discriminatory, and very low-paid. Moreover, in case there is no official contract, the women are susceptible to labour exploitation. "Of all these informalized occupations, commercial sex pays the best,” Augustin rightly argues (2006, p. 122).
“The young ones, they just fight for their food and family. The girl that works here is a graduate in Nigeria, but she has no papers. What else can she do?”
(Keke, field notes, January 2019)
We ask Ani what she would do if the carrés close. She replies that she has stopped before, but she spent two years looking for another job. She went to school and got job counselling, but it didn’t work out, so she came back.
(field notes, January 2019)
Third, the women expressed their incomprehension of how the health care system works and their inability to access it sometimes. The way public health care is organized in Belgium is quite complex and individuals are covered by the system if they carry out the compulsory registrations, which have quite a complicated administrative process. Some women working in the carrés, especially those with Belgian residence status, are integrated into this system and do receive adequate care.
“1 am fine. I don’t need anything. Also, medically, I am ok. 1 have my paper because I am married to someone from here, so 1 don’t have those kinds of problems.”
(Roki, field notes, April 2019)
In contrast, a substantial number of women who were interviewed were not aware of where they could go with their health problems.
“There is no help. 1 only go to the emergency room. But after, there is no follow up if you have no doctor. I don’t want to go home to Italy. 1 went to OCMW, but they asked me to bring many documents.”
In the field, the researchers were sometimes confronted with health-related struggles or needs, which highlighted that there was little access to formal services.
The second lady who opens the door today asks what we are doing in the area. After we explain, she says she isn’t feeling too good. She then proceeds to say that she can't hide from me the fact that she recently had an abortion and knows fully well that she shouldn’t be back at work yet as her body needs to heal. However, she has been back at work since January and now feels pain in her womb. She feels the pain when she has a client and also when she doesn’t have a client. It’s constant and she is worried. She puts my hand on the side of my stomach because she wants me to feel exactly where it is.
(field notes, February 2019)
Institutional and police distrust
In Nigeria and Ghana, which are countries that experience high levels of corruption, people learn to be cautious when it comes to authorities. During their migration trajectory to Europe, research shows that many of them were deceived (by traffickers) or abused by police officers (in transit countries) (UNODC, 2006). Finally, on arrival in Europe, the contact with government officials and the police evolves primarily around “having the right documents”, and not around their equal participation in society.
“You cannot trust the Arab police. They are like our police in Nigeria. They take bribes. They are together with the clients who attack us. If the policeman is Moroccan, he will start speaking Arabic with the guy and let him go freely.”
(Usi, field notes, May 2019)
In general, the women said that they do not trust the police to “be on their side” but this is also linked to their residence status. Johan Debuf, who is with the local anti-trafficking unit of the police, explains that in the past the focus of the local police was to chase illegal immigrants. Now they have shifted their focus, and building trust with the women is one of their priorities (personal communication, October 5, 2018), however, some damage has already been done. Those who were around when the police focused on identifying the undocumented still fear the police and they tell the new arrivals.
“Not so long ago, we arrived in the carrés (in civilian clothing) and one of the women, when she saw us coming, ran out of her carré in flip-flops in the cold while we are just there to protect them.’’
(J. Debuf, personal communication, October 5, 2018)
“The young women have bad renting contracts, yet they don’t come to us because they don’t trust us,” says Tylova (Espace P) (personal communication, February 6, 2019). The women who work in the carrés do not trust easily, not even staff of support services. This is also complicated by the fact that the women often do not speak one of the national languages, and are not familiar with local cultural codes or administrative procedures.
According to research conducted in several European countries, Weitzer (2014) discovered that women in prostitution are widely opposed to being registered by authorities for fear that this information could become public. Registration can offer benefits, but it also introduces forms of control (Rodriguez Garcia, 2014). The women who work in the carrés defy this by hiding, changing their names, and sharing documents. Research shows that distrust can be a tactical choice: a minimal form of agency and a way to stay in control (Simoni, 2013).
4.2.2 Little Nigeria
The majority of the African women working in the red-light district of the carrés are of Nigerian descent (more specifically from Edo state) with a minority originating from Ghana. These Ghanaian women all belong to the older generation of women who have been around for a long time. Most of the Nigerian women eat Nigerian food, watch Nigerian films, have Nigerian friends, and, if they go to church, attend a Nigerian church, and this is illustrative of the segregated lives that they live.
The Nigerian diaspora is made up of strong and valuable networks that spread all over Europe, maintaining close links with Nigeria, and these communities play an important role for newly arrived migrants in helping them to adapt to their new cultural environment. In the red-light district of the carrés, we discovered that the social relations the women forge are almost exclusively with other Nigerians as they share cultural norms, language, and migratory experiences that facilitate socialization. In addition, due to racism and the sometimes-hostile migration environment that exists in Belgian society, the
Findings 61 community can offer a home-feeling that is very beneficial to the women. A few women told us that they attend Nigerian churches in Brussels or the city they live in, explaining that there is no scarcity of Nigerian churches for newly arrived women looking for a church to attend; whether they go, however, is a different story.
“There are Nigerian churches everywhere. That is no problem. If someone new wants to go to church, someone else will show them the way.”
(Nancy, field notes, June 2019)
In the red-light district of the carrés, other economies co-exist with prostitution and attract Nigerians to the area, such as services that arrange money transfers to Nigeria, which is very important for most of the women who send money to their families. In the African shops, everything from toothpaste to palm wine to fresh avocados is brought directly from Nigeria, and cooks prepare meals (pepper soup, jollof rice, moi-moi etc.) that can be delivered to the women while they are working. There is a hair salon and an internal trade of clothes, makeup, jewellery etc. An observation made by the researchers during the fieldwork was that Nigerian politics or culture were often the topics of discussions in bars and shops.
Nigeria is also present in another way that should not be disregarded since most of the women own smartphones with which they stay in touch with friends and family members in Nigeria, and mobile Internet enables video calling which makes contact even more tangible. On a few occasions, the women were too busy on the phone and did not have time to talk to the researchers or the women passed their phone to the researchers to meet their boyfriends whom they were video chatting with. Via their phones, the women also read Nigerian news, watch Nigerian movies, and listen to Nigerian music. Window prostitution implies a lot of waiting time (Vandecandelaere, 2019).
For women who do not reside permanently in Brussels, diasporic networks also facilitate mobility between different European cities. If their stay is temporary, they allow the women to at least speak their language, practise their religion, and get familiar foods.
The women working in the carrés create alliances among themselves for different reasons: for protection, for company, and for practical reasons such as housing or arranging a workspace, and since most of the Nigerian women there originate from Edo state, they also share the same mother tongue. Some women expressed a sense of urgency to band together in response to their perception of a hostile environment.
“The people may not want us here, the police may not protect us, if we don’t look out for each other, then who will?”
(Issy, field notes, January 2019)
Of the older generation of Nigerian and Ghanaian women (45+) who have legal residence status in Belgium, some have formally united. Following the death of Eunice in 2018, ten Nigerian and Ghanaian women went to the Nigerian Embassy and the local governments, demanding improved security measures in the area.
4.2.3 Transnational mobility
Mobility is an important theme with far-reaching consequences in the red-light district of the carrés. There is a high level of (1) intercontinental mobility, (2) mobility within Europe, and (3) movement within the red-light district itself. The women use this mobility to adapt to certain changes in their environment as forms of agency that may be both strengthening/liberating and unsettling/worrisome. It also influences the future that women envision for themselves.
For the women of Nigerian descent, Nigeria is still “home” and those who can travel and visit family, go on holidays, or do business, do so. Two of the participants travelled to Nigeria during the duration of the fieldwork because they lost a parent. The death of a parent is a very meaningful and important event in Nigeria and may put financial pressure on children, especially those who have migrated abroad, as the women themselves explained. This is because some family members expect them to contribute financially towards the funeral arrangements, which are often very elaborate.
Other women longed for their next trip home to see their loved ones, as some of them left their children behind in the care of family members. While this may be surprising or even frowned upon in Belgian society, it is not uncommon in Nigerian society, as families (including extended members) often work through life as one unit (Commisceo Global, 2020). Most of the women experience forms of immobility, due to strict migration laws, and as much as they would like to travel to Nigeria, are unable to.
While talking about her day, every now and again Pearl slips in an Italian word. She explains that she goes to Clemenceau (Brussels market) to do her spesa, meaning her groceries. She laughs, saying she sometimes genuinely forgets how it’s said in English.
(field notes, 26 March 2019)
As this field note indicates, “home” for some of the women working in the red-light district of Brussels sometimes meant Italy, Spain, France, or even Greece. It is their first “host” country, where they know the language and have friends. In these three streets it is not uncommon to hear Spanish or Italian words, confirming that in general “the nature of migrant sex work in Europe is itinerant and transnational” (Agustin, 2006, p. 116). As we have described, the diasporic networks facilitate mobility and the women move across borders, following where there is money to be made, there is a space to work, and there is someone they know who can give them access to that space.
We noticed that the women also move in response to the financial crisis. Many of the women have moved from other European cities to Brussels to temporarily work in prostitution (J. Hendriks & F. Van-delook, personal communication, November 10, 2018). “Considering prostitutes engage in their work for money” (Persak, 2014, p. 102), this is not surprising and means that today there is a constant “supply” of women to fill the carrés.
- 1 ask Stella what attracts women to come work in the red-light district in Brussels. “I think it’s the money that attracts them. Here you can make money,” she replies.
- (field notes, June 2019)
However, with the decrease in clients, the high cost of housing, and high rents of the carrés, the women are not always able to make the amount of money that they would like.7
Although Lulu has only been around for a few months, today she tells us she is going back to Italy. “I am happy to be leaving. What's even worse is the fact that while I’ve been working here. 1 haven’t been making any money because business is so slow and there aren’t many clients around. 1 had to plead with the landlord to reduce the last rent because I couldn't afford to pay, and he took €100 oft’my bill.”
(field notes, May 2019)
Women also move in reaction to tightening prostitution laws. Roxy had recently come from France, where she was no longer able to work in prostitution legally (as a result of the 2016 abolitionist laws). Mary also explained her reason for moving to Brussels:
“I came here six years ago from Spain. There was crisis you know, and racism. In Spain, when you are black you are a prostitute. Here, at least when you leave this area, you can be anybody.”
(Mary, field notes, February 2019)
The women challenge a system of integration programmes and social care for migrants based on national residence status and languagelearning of the host country, as this is based on the premise that all migrants settle in the country. This research, however, showed that the women in question often consider their stay in Brussels a temporary one. They are focused on earning money and are not necessarily interested in investing in an overly comfortable lifestyle (with regard to housing, interacting with locals etc.) or exploring their surroundings. Some argue that prostitution attracts women because it offers flexibility and independence (Rodriguez Garcia, 2014).
“My plan is to do this for a few more years until 1 have saved enough and can set up a business back home in Edo state.”
(Jojo, field notes, January 2019)
This access to mobility has another downside. The fact that open borders (within the Schengen area) do not translate into joint policies on prostitution, trafficking, or migration means that there is no uniform system of protection for the most vulnerable women, who are prone to exploitation. Madams sometimes move women around to keep them purposefully isolated and hinder police investigations (J. Hendriks & F. Vandelook, personal communication. November 10, 2018).
Some of the participants mentioned having worked in other Belgium cities, e.g. in the red-light district of Antwerp. One woman mentioned that she worked in a bar on the Aarschotstraat/rue d'Aerschot when there were still African women working in that red-light district. This is potentially relevant as it might explain the working regimes that some women have transported into the red-light district of the carrés: e.g. working in shifts instead of alone.
As noticed early on in the fieldwork, not all of the women working in the red-light district of the carrés have a fixed spot. The organization is adapted to the mobile lives of the women, and this system offers a lot of flexibility for some, but uncertainty for others.
When we meet Isabella on the street, we ask her how she is doing now that she has lost her carré-spot. “Soldier go, soldier come, after barracks go remain,” she answers with a smile. She already has a new place to work and mentions that she earns more money there.
- (field notes, May 2019)
- 4.2.4 Internal differences
The African women who work behind the windows are by no means a homogenous group.8 During the many interviews and conversations, the diversity among them became even more apparent. Although their place on the margin as black, migrant women working in prostitution may generate similar experiences, they are distinct individuals who relate to others in complex processes of identification. There are certain categories through which the women distinguish themselves, the most tangible being:
- • Age: the women are aged between +/- 18 and +/- 60. There is a clear différence and separation between the “older generation” of women aged over 50 and the “new generation” of those aged between 18 and 30.
- • Origin: the women were born in Nigeria or Ghana and uphold strong relationships with their country of origin. We only met one woman who was from another (to us unknown) African country.
- • Migration status: the women have different long-term, short-term or pending residence statuses, which were issued by different European countries.
- • Family situation: the women have different family situations regarding marital status and children. For those who have started their own family, family members may be living with them, or reside in another European country or in Nigeria.
- • Time in the area: The women we met had worked in the red-light district of the carrés for the duration of one week to over ten years.
These categories influence the processes of group formation. While risking being reductive, this research can distinguish three main groups.
- 1 The first generation of women who arrived from the 1990s onwards. They are aged between 45 and 65 years old, of Nigerian or Ghanaian descent, live permanently in Belgium, and often have family members who live with them. Some of the women in the group have joined Utsopi, a sex workers’ collective in Brussels. Of the women quoted/mentioned in this book, we consider Kosi, Ani, Megan, Beauty, Lulu, Edith, Momo, Hilary. Bella, Erica, Didi, and Agnes as belonging to this group.
- 2 Young Nigerian women who work at night and have little “Europe-experience”. They mostly live in shared houses or inside the carrés, and it was clear that there were potential victims of trafficking in this group. Of the women quoted/mentioned in this book, we consider Rose, Maya, Sally, Stella, and Usi as part of this group.
- 3 Women in their thirties and forties. They were trafficked but have paid off their debt and came from other European countries (mostly Italy and Spain) to work in the red-light district in Brussels. Of the women quoted/mentioned in this book, we consider Issy, Mabel, Gold, Jojo, Keke, Pearl, Diamond, Celia, Anjie, Joma, and Isabella as part of this group.
Some women, however, find themselves on the intersection of these groups. Roki, Violet, Lucy, and Roxy for example fall somewhere in between groups 2 and 3.
During their time in the area, the researchers witnessed tensions between and within these groups. According to social identity theory, group conflicts are expressed through the comparison of individuals of one group with those of another: favouring one’s group, exaggerating or generalizing certain aspects of the other group, and retaining only negative information of the other group (Turner, 1975). For example:
- • The existence of negative stereotypes about Nigerians/Benin girls, especially expressed by women from Ghana.
- • Older women think the presence of young women creates unfair competition.
- • Women who have been working in the red-light district for a longer period were unwelcoming to newcomers, as the next field note illustrates.
“We have to do something about those refugees that come and take our place,” Didi says, when she addresses the other women. She is referring to the women that arrived more recently from Italy and Spain.
(field notes, May 2019)
Some tensions are related to the stigma associated with prostitution, as younger women disapprove of older women in the profession.
Joma says she wants to make some more money before returning to Nigeria to marry and settle down. About the “older” women in the carrés, she says: “The women are so old and have been there for so long without shame. Most of them either have no kids, or have only one and most of the time, the father is either nowhere to be found, or unknown. We will not be like those women and will leave this lifestyle before we get to that age.”
(field notes, May 2019)
There are circumstantial factors that create competition between the women and contribute to the tensions:
- • There are fewer clients. This is a trend that is visible in all red-light districts in Belgium (Vandecandelaere, 2019) but reinforced by the current state of insecurity in the case of the red-light district of the carrés.
- • There are fewer windows available. Over the last two years, a lot of the carrés have been closed.
- • The legislation is not respected and there is ambiguity about who is allowed to “stand” behind the windows and work. Therefore, some of the women take advantage of this confusion to facilitate or block access for certain groups.
- • The women experience constant pressure to earn money. While they do not have a fixed/guaranteed income, they need to pay the monthly rent and expenses of both their living and working places. In addition to that, many of them have become breadwinners for their families back home.
Turner showed that intergroup conflicts are biased and subjective, and on a deeper level serve to enhance one’s self-esteem (1975). Research has shown that women working in prostitution are vulnerable to experience low self-esteem (Campbell & O’Neill, 2006). This vulnerability is intensified in the case of the African women who work in the carrés, because of
- 1 the assumption that most of these women have a history of being trafficked (see 4.3.4)
- 2 the prevalence of harassment from residents or passers-by
3 internalized stigma (see 4.1.3). Prostitution is considered morally deviant behaviour, also in Nigeria (Alobo & Ndifon, 2014) and Ghana (Awusabo-Asare, 2010 as cited in Lithur et al., 2014).
In this context engaging in conflict or avoiding it can be interpreted as a desperate way to enhance one’s self-esteem.
We asked how they were and they told us that not long after we left two days earlier, a fight broke out and it was really, really bad ... the girls were talking about it and how it is so stupid that the women were fighting over some guy ... and that no guy is worth that.
(field notes, March 2019)
Today we see Beauty again. The first time we met her, she had just arrived in the area. We ask her if she’s made some friends in the area. “I don’t want contact with the other women. I don’t need friends. I don’t want to get involved in any trouble or fight,” she replied.
(field notes, April 2019)
Beauty chooses not to “get involved” with the other women because, within two weeks of her arrival, she has already understood that this is a divided community that could cause her “trouble”.
When we ask Celia what she would like to see changed in the area, she replies: “We are not together. If we could have one voice it would be good. If we would organize ourselves.”
(field notes, March 2019)