Survivor of attempted sexual assault says migrant sex workers are targeted due to NZ law

A migrant sex worker who says she was assaulted on the job claims most foreign workers won’t report sexual assault because they’re scared of being deported.

Bianca Beebe can speak openly now she is a permanent resident, but four years ago, sharing her experience could have got her kicked out of New Zealand.

The public health masters student who specialises in sex work advocacy, was providing sexual services in 2017 when she said a client tried to sexually assault her.

Under New Zealand law it is illegal for those on temporary visas to offer commercial sex services, so Beebe was left wondering whether reporting the incident was worth potentially being deported over.

The US-born researcher was scared, but found the strength to go to police and when she did, was reassured that her immigration status was not a concern.

“He [the officer] looked me in the eye and said flat out we don’t care what you do for a living, no one is able to treat you like that, we just want to catch this guy.”

In a statement a police spokesperson told the Herald they work with the sex industry to
ensure the safety of workers and will respond appropriately if they become aware of any issues or criminal matters raised with them.

“We know coming forward to report a sexual assault can be incredibly difficult so we want to reassure all members of our community that we put victims at the centre of our approach.”

Despite her positive experience, Beebe is worried that other workers are being assaulted and may be too scared to speak up about it.

“It’s just this feeling of fear you know in your gut, in the back of your head while you’re waiting for Immigration to make a decision.”

Reporting isn’t the only issue and Beebe believes migrant workers are specifically preyed upon due to their vulnerable status.

“Rapists are not exclusively stupid, rapists are aware of the law, so they explicitly target migratory workers.”

She said most migrant sex workers she’s spoken to have had experiences like hers, with some being outright blackmailed by patrons threatening to alert Immigration New Zealand if they don’t perform sex acts for free.

Section 19 of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) 2003 stipulates that no immigration permit can be granted to non-residents who provide or who intend to provide commercial sex services, or operate them.

At the time, this was framed as a means to prevent New Zealand from becoming a destination for trafficking – however some in the sex industry say it has had the opposite effect.

In Beebe’s nine years in New Zealand she has never witnessed “trafficking” but said there were “absolutely” exploitative conditions for some migrant sex workers.

When their rights are discussed, she said often there is an exclusive focus on sexual violence – but labour rights violations are happening “constantly”.

“People know that they can take a huge cut from a person’s pay if they are undocumented, they [the workers] can’t go to [the] employment court.”

New Zealand Prostitutes Collective national organiser Dame Catherine Healy said they have heard from migrant sex workers who’ve been threatened, assaulted, sexually assaulted and had payment withheld from them.

“We strongly believe that their vulnerabilities are known quite widely and that the perpetrators of these crimes which are committed against these migrant sex workers are targeting them.”

When sex work was decriminalised, Healy said some believed it would be appropriate to stop people from coming to this country with the intention of being sex workers, as they thought it would contribute to the prevention of trafficking.

As a result a section effectively banning migrant sex work was included in the PRA, which Healy said has actually contributed to the exploitation of sex workers.

“I think most of the sex workers in these situations would tell you that they have had an encounter with someone who has pressurised them because they are a migrant.”

Healy told the Herald a law change was “well overdue”.

Immigration New Zealand verification and compliance manager Geoff Scott said they undertake work to identify and refuse entry to foreign sex workers seeking to enter New Zealand.

“Temporary migrants, who breach their visa conditions by working in the New Zealand sex industry, are vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers and clients. They are less likely to be aware of their rights and entitlements than their New Zealand colleagues and are unlikely to come forward and complain.”

He said assault matters should be reported to police and where necessary police may consult INZ.

“INZ manages these matters on a case-by-case basis, with all relevant options applicable to the migrant taken into consideration. However, in some cases the final outcome may be deportation.”

Beebe felt because she was in a privileged position, as a researcher and now resident,she could share her story because many of her fellow sex workers can not.

She believes migrant sex workers are being discriminated against by a law that has enabled sexual violence and labour abuse on a “massive scale”.

“This legislation makes New Zealand a more dangerous place for everyone.”

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