Prostitution and policy: the modus operandi of the red-light district of the carrés

4.3.1 Local legislation

The joint approach on regulating prostitution-related activities in the red-light district of the carrés which was drafted by Schaerbeek and Saint-Josse in 2011 has been unable to reach a mutually beneficial result (see 3.2.3). Within the context of a politics of containment that accepts prostitution on its territory, its focus lay on improving the well-being of the women, eliminating pimping, and minimizing

Findings 69 nuisance related to the activity. The police units responsible for antitrafficking efforts (both on a federal and local level) are in favour of such an approach as they need the visibility that the red-light district offers, and argue that if prostitution goes underground it will be harder to detect the victims (J. Debuf, personal communication, October 5, 2018; J. Hendriks & F. Vandelook, personal communication, November 10, 2018).

From the Schaerbeek perspective, stakeholders identify several explanations for this failure: (1) priority was given to the red-light district of the Aarschotstraat/rue d’Aerschot (which was considered more urgent due to the unsanitary working conditions of the salons and the nuisance for the inhabitants) (É. Haquin, personal communication, October 18, 2018), (2) imposing the urban planning legislation of the carré, i.e. the fact that only the woman whose name is on the rental contract can work there, has proven to be challenging (J. Debuf, personal communication, October 5, 2018), (3) measurements to improve security have not been implemented (A. Vlaemynck, personal communication. October 5, 2018), and (4) the government of Saint-Josse has chosen to abandon the approach. Several of the stakeholders, however, expressed scepticism about the achievability of a workable solution.


In 2013 the municipality of Saint-Josse distanced itself from the joint approach to improve the existing red-light district. They instead researched the possibility of building a Brussels version of Villa Tinto (a large, regulated brothel in Antwerp), which is slightly removed from the area, but were unable to go through with it because the cost was too high (Vileyn, 2018). Instead, as explained by the mayor, Emir Kir, they have been making interventions in the area to curb prostitution activities to restore its residential character (Vileyn, 2018). This is in line with more global trends that “focus on the exclusion of prostitution from public spaces” (Persak & Vermeulen, 2014, p. 15).

The government of Saint-Josse drafted new regulations, purchased properties9 that contained carrés on the ground floor, and built a new complex that contains social apartments and a daycare centre. Several of the stakeholders indicated that this is not an apolitical intervention but one that was strategically carried out by the municipality in their bid to end prostitution on their domain, as visible prostitution in the presence of schools and other services for children is by law considered a disruption of public order. Although we found newly arrived women to be unaware of these changes, others who are long-term workers in the area are involved in fighting these interventions in court and accuse the mayor of trying to force them out of his municipality.

“The Turkish Burgemeester is causing trouble.”

(Keke, field notes, January 2019)

“The Mayor has no right to try and enforce his beliefs and religion on us. This is Belgium and not Turkey. Why would he establish a crèche in the middle of the carrés, knowing fully well that the carrés have existed there for a very long time?”

(Agnes, field notes, February 2019)

Saint-Josse is facing resistance in its approach. The last two adjustments to the police regulations concerning window prostitution were appealed by a group of sex workers before the Council of State (the supreme administrative court in Belgium), which in turn led to the annulment of the regulations. This happened because some of its elements were considered disproportionate, e.g. prohibiting night work (2016) and the sudden closure of 40 carrés (2018), or irrelevant, e.g. the municipal’s motivation of fighting human trafficking is considered a federal matter.

Celia says she took an active part in fighting the new regulations: “I am part of the group that contributed money to pay a lawyer to fight the decision of Emir Kir to close the carrés,” she tells us.

(field notes, March 2019)

The annulment of the regulations has the inverse effect of creating a laissez-faire environment of “anything goes”, as the certificate of conformity (see 3.2.3) is no longer required.

At the onset of the fieldwork, in January 2019, the last 12 carrés in the Rivierstraat/rue de la Rivière in Saint-Josse were closed (personal communication stakeholders), now delimiting the red-light district to only three streets and leaving women in search of a new place “to stand”. However, the women adapt to the changes that are taking place.

“Some are on the streets, looking for clients, you will see. Then when they have a client they will ask another girl if they can go inside.”

After losing her carré, Issy phones us to say that yesterday she went to work in a bar near Rogier, an area in Brussels where bar and street prostitution takes place.

(field notes, June 2019)

There are also many rumours and speculations:

“I know they will close it. 1 have a boyfriend, he is Belgian and he told me by 2021 they will close.”

(Mabel, field notes, January 2019)

“The rumour is that it will all close by the end of December this year. But 1 don’t think they will just close without giving us time to find other options.”

(Celia, field notes, March 2019)


In the small stretches at the end of the Plantenstraat/rue des Plantes and Linnéstraat/rue Linné, where Saint-Josse unnoticeably ends and Schaerbeek begins, women need a certificate of conformity, as per the local regulations, to work in the carrés. This applies to 33 out of 96 carrés because the 33 carrés fall under the jurisdiction of Schaerbeek and its legislations while the remaining 63 carrés are on the domain of Saint-Josse, which no longer regulates prostitution on its domain.

To obtain the certificate, the women need to submit a long list of documents and fulfil certain requirements. While these measures are put in place to protect the women, they are often experienced differently by the same women for whose protection they were created. As the following field notes show, the bureaucratic application process and the limited flexibility of the certificate can be experienced as burdensome and inconvenient for the women.

“It’s too difficult! They need so many papers from us. I don’t understand why they are making things so difficult. At least on the other side (Saint-Josse), they leave you alone. You have to pay 250 euro just to start the procedure. But if you travel and you don’t finish it, you need to start again, and then you have to pay again. And it’s only me that’s allowed to stand here. It’s easier in Saint-Josse. Because here, if 1 travel for one month, I cannot put somebody else in my window. It can only be me. There you can change but it’s full. There are no more carrés available in Saint-Josse.”

“It’s a lot of work. Many documents, not only for me but also for my landlord. Many documents. You have to go, and then again, and then again. They ask a lot for this document, and also from the owner.”

(Erica, field notes, May 2019)

In the nearby red-light district of the Aarschotstraat/rue d’Aerschot, women with a predominantly Eastern European migration background work in “salons”. These are considered commercial premises that allow the sharing of workspaces and working in shifts. It is not easy to comprehend the existence of different legislations no more than 100 metres apart.

When we ask if she has any recommendations, Stella replies: “They should allow more girls in the same window. Like the whites in the other street. They are two or three. It makes sense, it’s safer. The blacks can only stand alone. They are always one.”

(field notes, June 2019)

Workplace requirements

The carrés in Schaerbeek have to meet certain safety measures (e.g. the requirement of a fire extinguisher), while there is no monitoring of the carrés in Saint-Josse due to the annulment of the local regulations (personal communication stakeholders). In addition, due to a “technical problem”, Saint-Josse would not be able to impose certain material requirements that were put in the joint urban planning regulation for window prostitution. When the regulations were drafted in 2011, the carrés in Saint-Josse were already classified as carrés, as opposed to those in Schaerbeek, and this makes it legally impossible to impose the requirements. Inside the carrés, the researchers encountered a variety of situations. Some carrés are in good condition, while others are clearly neglected. However, the researchers did not observe a significant difference between the carrés in Schaerbeek and those in Saint-Josse, as the women take good care of the spaces that they have. Several of them put effort into decorating, and their carrés had coloured lights, posters on the wall, sheer curtains, wigs attached to the walls, sex toys on display, etc.

4.3.2 Informal regulation

The red-light district has evolved and transformed according to different dynamics other than intended in 2011, especially at night.

Prostitution activities are now organized in an informal and selfregulated way, filling a legislative vacuum that exists for different reasons, some of which have been earlier discussed:

  • 1 Prostitution is not regulated on a national level.
  • 2 Municipalities can only intervene on issues regarding public order and safety.
  • 3 The local police regulations of Saint-Josse regarding prostitution have been annulled.
  • 4 The local police regulations of Schaerbeek regarding prostitution are not imposed, especially at night.


The municipalities collect taxes on the carrés that are linked to their economic use. In Schaerbeek, this is around 1,200 euros a year and in Saint-Josse around 3,000 euros. The property owners set rental prices that also consider the commercial purpose of the premises and, from what the women told the researchers, the prices vary from 1,000 to 3,000 euros per month for the two rooms. Some women split the rental price in half while others pay a fixed amount or a percentage of their earnings per week or weekend. Although most women live elsewhere, for some, the carré is their home.

Pearl is sleeping in the carré for the time being because she is trying to save up some money. She says that saving the €200 she used to pay as rent goes a long way.

(field notes, June 2019)

The women say that they mostly charge around 20 euros per client, but this price may also be higher or lower depending on the type of sexual service performed, a specific (known) client, or the level of desperation they have to make money regardless of the amount when clients are scarce.


Most women in the carrés either work during the day or at the night. However, some rotate between night and day shifts (depending on what is available) or even do both at the same time. At night, young women come to the area hoping that there is a free window where they can work. One night, when the researchers were in a bar in the area, a young woman came in and word quickly spread that she needed a window to work in. Shortly afterwards, someone accompanied her out to show her the window where she could “stand”.

Different roles

Women (and some men) in the red-light district have different roles with regards to prostitution: facilitating access, subletting, providing food and other services, arranging money transfers, security etc. Research has shown that migrant women who work in prostitution are generally dependent on intermediaries (Persak & Vermeulen, 2014). This is also the case for other forms of informal labour, as “newcomers use the networks and the information of migrants who have arrived before them” (Wagenaar et al., 2017, p. 201). Newly arrived women explained that they came through a sister, an aunt, or a friend. The women depend on this intermediary to organize transportation, find a place to live in, and access a place to “stand’Vwork, and the women who have been in the area for a long time are the most knowledgeable on how to facilitate work for others. Many of the women who officially rent the carrés tend to unofficially sublet to others. Women who are no longer working in prostitution, and some men from outside of the African community, equally contribute to the facilitation of the activity.

“We are helping them by giving them a place to work. They need to earn money to take care of their family.”

(Jojo, field notes, January 2019)

It is afternoon and there are a lot of people outside. We are walking with Mary and a man stops her on the street, mentioning something about a contract. He is an older, Belgian man, and he asks us what we are doing in the area. 1 explain briefly, and then he says: “I help the girls. I have for a long time. Now that they’ve closed some of the carrés, some have no place to work. 1 help them. 1 make multi-tenant contracts. So they can share a carré with three instead of two. Where else can they go?”

(field notes, February 2019)


In her study in 2014, Tylova points out the asymmetric relationships and power différences between the women working in the carrés. She

Findings 75 argues that their social status is determined by their origin, legal status, degree of autonomy, and age (2014). As a result, the organization of the prostitution activity has a certain hierarchical character. This is partly cultural because of the hierarchical culture of most African societies where age is believed to confer wisdom so older people are granted respect. The oldest person in a group is often revered and honoured, and in social situations they are greeted and served first. In return, they have the responsibility to make decisions that are in the best interest of the group. Status is further determined through someone’s level of education, knowledge, motherhood, and wealth (Commisceo Global, 2020). During the fieldwork, how the women addressed the Nigerian researcher was exemplary. Depending on their position, they used the term "sister” (their equal or close in age) or “auntie” (deemed older or superior). These hierarchies (combined with family relationships) traditionally structure social order (Falola, 2001), of which there were obvious traces in the red-light district.

The women occupy different positions in the community, and this affects their level of agency. In the red-light district of the carrés, high levels of agency can translate into choosing when to work (night or day), being able to obtain a rental contract (and thus a stable and legal place to work), and having the option to sublet and generate an alternative income. Low levels of agency, on the other hand, mean that a woman only has the option to work at night (when it is less safe) and that she depends on others to have access to a carré, which gives little job security and makes her subject to fluctuating “stand” prices (and thus vulnerable to exploitation).

433 Sex workers support service

Espace P offers first-line assistance to sex workers, and although their services span all of the Brussels-capital area, including those working in private forms of prostitution, their office is conveniently located in the red-light district of the carrés. In the context of public health prevention, they offer free testing of STDs, give out condoms and lubricants, and provide gynaecologist consultations (T. Tylova, personal communication, February 6, 2019). They also provide referrals to the conventional health care system when needed. They can help evoke the procedure of Urgent Medical Aid, which is available for migrants without legal residence status but is difficult to access, or simply inform the women about how the health care system works (1. Jaramillo, personal communication, May 20, 2019).

Since 2013, Espace P has purposefully started addressing the women of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent with whom they formerly had no relations, having discovered as we did that building trust is crucial in reaching the women. On Tuesday evenings, one or two of Espace P’s English-speaking social assistants go on the streets to establish contact with the women. In interviews, the women (who know about the services of Espace P) called it “that place”, “those people”, “Espace E” and “Payoka”.

We ask them if they know Espace P or rather “those women that come around with condoms”, which they usually understand better. All five of them say yes. They say they appreciate the fact that the women speak English and that they’ve gone there to get tested. “At least they try,” Usi says.

(focus group, field notes, May 2019)

Despite their location, however, not all of the women whom the researchers interviewed were familiar with Espace P; this was especially true for the newly arrived women. They might have been given condoms, but often had not been to the office, which is discreetly located on the Plantenstraat/rue des Plantes.

Although the initial approach of Espace P is one of public health prevention, they are open to any questions sex workers might have and offer broader social assistance, which has proven to be very challenging. Tylova (Espace P) said:

“So let’s say 7 years ago 1 started approaching women through a purely medical approach and only after 3 or 4 years 1 have been able to make some deeper connections with the older ones. But not with the young ones. And we know that administratively they are sometimes lost in the system.”

  • (personal communication, February 6, 2019)
  • 43.4 Malevolent exploitation and human trafficking

Migrants depend on “third parties to secure a job, a house, and to negotiate their interactions with the authorities, but this might provoke dependency and make them vulnerable to exploitation” (Wagenaar et al.. 2017, p. 205). There are different “regimes of collaboration” in the red-light district, but we have little insight into the details of what these regimes entail. It is also difficult to judge the fairness of a financial agreement, especially those related to rental

Findings 77 prices, as many of the women we met expressed some form of financial stress related to the high cost of working in the carrés.

The property owners charge high rental prices, thereby making it impossible or at least unrealistic for one woman to manage the rent on her own. It is not clear how this situation came about or what happened first: the increased rental prices (which motivated shift work) or the increased revenue because of carré-sharing (which made house owners/intermediaries ask more rent).

“1 pay 1,800 euros for my carré. It’s beautiful. 1 am lucky. 1 sublet my carré during the night. The others do it, I didn’t start it. How else can 1 afford to continue? The rent of my flat is another 850. With all expenses I have to pay 3,000 euros a month.”

(Megan, field notes, February 2019)

The fieldwork revealed indications that rent may on average be higher for the African women (+/- 2,000 euro) than for the Belgian women (+/- 1,000 euros). In addition, the taxes that are intended for the property owners are sometimes paid by misinformed women (Belgian sex worker, personal communication, February 16, 2019). The migrant women are vulnerable to exploitation when they do not have access to justice, or do not know exploitation is taking place. As Debuf stated in an interview: "The girls without a legal address in Belgium often have to pay more because they can’t lodge a formal complaint for fear of the police” (personal communication. October 5, 2018).

“It was first Ghanaians who exploited Nigerians and later Nigerians exploiting Nigerians,” Tylova explains (personal communication, February 6, 2019). Within the group of Nigerian and Ghanaian women, there are clear forms of malevolent exploitation. The existence of group conflicts and the hierarchical organization of the prostitution activities are not harmful per se but create an environment that is particularly unguarded and prone to abuse.

Isabella has been told she can't work in the window anymore by the legal tenant of the carré. The woman told Isabella she isn’t working enough and making enough money. Her friend Anjie tells us it’s not fair because she can’t help that there are not enough clients.

(field notes, May 2019)

The issue of human trafficking was present in several ways, and while it was never the main topic of conversation, it often came up naturally in references and side comments that referred to the trafficked history of the women. A large majority of the African women of Nigerian descent in the red-light district originate from Edo state, the hub of human trafficking in Nigeria, and since legal migration pathways for many of these women are quasi non-existent, it may be assumed that most of the women who arrived in Europe irregularly went through a similar experience of trafficking. While many of them have “bought” their freedom and are free of their debt bondage, they carry a particularly violent past with them, which informs the choices and decisions that they make. Research shows the women are vulnerable to mental health issues that have been linked to trafficking: e.g. depression, anxiety, PTSD (Altun et al., 2017). Some of the behaviours that were observed in the carrés during the fieldwork which demonstrated anger, hostility, and irritability could result from these.

From inside Beauty’s carré, we can see a woman with a cut on her face, standing outside. We ask her what happened. Beauty tells us about a fight that took place. One woman had broken a bottle which she wanted to attack the other woman with but in the struggle, she ended up being the one who got hurt as the bottle slashed her badly.

(field notes, May 2019)

During the fieldwork, the researchers made some observations that indicated potential cases of human trafficking as some of the younger women (estimated age between 16 and 20) refused to participate in the research. They looked frightened and were clearly being watched either by someone on the street, from behind another window, or from behind a curtain inside the same carré. The lawless atmosphere undeniably makes it an easy location for traffickers, especially at night.

“I am trying to earn for myself, but there is too much competition from the Nigerian madams. Everyone knows what is going on in the area, including the police, but no one is doing anything about it. It would be better for the carrés to be shut down once and for all, that way none of them would be working and things would at least be fair.”

(Kosi, field notes, January 2019)

Tylova suspects that some women are at the same time victim and madam: “There are also victims that understand that they can pay off their debt faster by exploiting others and they do this for example, by

Findings 79 subletting their carrés at night at a high price” (personal communication, February 6, 2019).

The anti-trafficking teams of the federal and local police, PAG-ASA and Espace P confirm the presence of human trafficking networks in the area. Recent cases (2014 and 2017), that were elaborately described in the Myria Year Report of 2018, inform us about how they operate:

  • • In the case of Madam J, the crimes of human trafficking took place between 2014 and 2016. According to the report, the network smuggled dozens of girls, including various minors, from Nigeria to Belgium and other European countries to exploit them into prostitution. They operated on an international level and moved the victims from one location to the other when they suspected detection by the police, and also exchanged victims between different madams in Belgium, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. The victims were recruited in Benin City, made to travel through Libya, and juju rituals were undertaken to ensure their loyalty in Nigeria and Europe. In Brussels, the girls were put to work in the carrés. This case reveals that ‘'madams” or sponsors sometimes reside in other European countries, which makes them difficult to detect (Myria, 2018).
  • • Mama L. was arrested in 2017 for being involved in the exploitation of 56 Nigerian girls, some of whom she had helped to smuggle into Belgium. She previously worked in the carrés for many years and, by 2017, she was subletting about 27 carrés and making big profits (Myria, 2018). While the official communication said that 30 victims had been rescued, 25 of them were arrested and released with a letter ordering them to leave the country. The case is interesting because it illustrates how immigration agendas sometimes outweigh victims’ rights (Campbell & O’Neill, 2006). These are experiences that potentially leave their mark and influence future interactions with the authorities.
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