Building Partnerships for Service Provision to Migrant Sex Workers

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By: Natalya Timoshkina, Lynn McDonald
Org: Wellesley Institute
Date: 2009

"They lack education. They lack information. They lack resources, trust, health care."

The Wellesley Institute has released new research from Natalya Timoshkina and Lynn McDonald of the University of Toronto's Institute for Life Course and Aging: Building Partnerships for Service Provision to Migrant Sex Workers (PDF format).


The RCMP estimates that between 600 and 800 foreign women and girls are trafficked into the Canadian sex industry each year, although the authorities admit these figures could be only a fraction of the actual total. ‘Migrant sex workers' are trafficked, smuggled, non-status, illegal, undocumented or irregular migrants, and legal newcomers working in the sex trade.

The migrant sex worker population faces multiple and intersecting issues, including language and cultural barriers, isolation, poor working conditions, and violence.

The study findings pointed to a dramatic increase in the number of migrants in all sectors of the local sex industry, and in the number of health and social service organizations that either deal with this population or are interested in getting involved. At the same time, the research found that service provision to migrants in the sex trade remains sporadic and fragmented. This report represents the most comprehensive effort to date to assess the situation with migrant sex trade in Toronto. Migrant sex workers are one of the most hard-to-reach, underserved and poorly studied populations. Information provided in this report should be particularly useful to health and social service providers, social work students, and academics. The report also may be of interest to the representatives of the media and the general public.

Main Findings

  • The research findings pointed to a dramatic increase in the number of migrants in all sectors of the local sex industry. Countries of Asia (especially China, Thailand, the Philippines, and Korea), the former Eastern Bloc, and Latin America were named as the primary ‘suppliers’ of migrant sex workers.
  • Agencies reported seeing dozens of cases of trafficked women, many of whom had been brought to Canada on the visitor visas by members of extended family for the purpose of “helping out” around the house, and later forced into prostitution. Most of these women were purportedly very young and faced almost insurmountable odds in trying to escape their situation and re-build their lives. One of the service providers conveyed: “I’ve seen young women age very quickly from the experience that they’re having.”
  • The project also identified a significant increase in the number of organizations that provided or could provide services to migrant sex workers.
  • The study found that migrant sex workers faced multiple and intersecting problems, such as: (1) illegal or unstable immigration status; (2) criminalization of the sex trade; (3) language and cultural barriers; (4) lack of education; (5) lack of information; (6) lack of accessible and specialized services; (7) control and exploitation; (8) isolation; (9) poor working conditions; (10) violence; (11) lack of the overall safety; (12) health problems, particularly HIV/STI risks and substance abuse; (13) stigmatization; (14) negative internal dynamics of the sex industry; and (15) lack of opportunities to exit the sex trade.
  • The findings suggested that service provision to migrant sex workers remained sporadic and fragmented due to many serious barriers, including: (1) difficulty accessing the population; (2) difficulty building trust with the population; (3) difficulty maintaining contact with the population; (4) nocturnal lifestyle of the population; (5) lack of funding for services targeting migrant sex workers; (6) internal agency resistance to working with this population; (7) difficulty providing safe environment for the population; (8) lack of relevant professional expertise and cultural competence on the part of the service providers; (9) lack of training opportunities for service providers interested in working with migrants involved in the sex trade; (10) ideological differences between service providers; and (11) lack of collaboration between service providers.
  • The analysis of several reported examples of successful engagement with migrant sex workers.
  • The service providers participating in the study named the following priorities for future service delivery to migrants in the sex trade: (1) immigration assistance; (2) legal assistance; (3) outreach initiatives; (4) development and distribution of various information materials in multiple languages; (5) cultural interpretation services; (6) provision of basic necessities; (7) multi-stage housing; (8) HIV/STI prevention; (9) general health promotion; (10) language training; (11) educational and vocational programs; (12) comprehensive exit/transition/career change programs; and (13) overall empowerment of migrants in the sex industry.

Webinar Recording of Release

This report was released via webinar on November 14. View the discussion with co-investigator Natalya Timoshkina here: