“We have tried to say to the workers: ‘Don’t work.’ But they say: ‘we don’t have food and don’t want to starve. We have to risk having the virus, we need the money.’”

Nini, Ombre Rosse, Italy

“Our government did not say a word about sex workers. But the Pope did and sent some food and money to transgender sex workers in Rome. This is not an act of improving their attitudes, just a PR stunt of Christian charity. They have for long stigmatised the sex worker and LGBT community.”

Pia Covre, CDCP Onlus, Italy

The sex worker community

Italy has a population of around 60 million people and is amongst the European countries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic so far: by the beginning of May, the death toll almost reached 27.000. The country’s sex worker population is estimated to be around 70.000 workers, of which around 20.000 people work on the street. According to local sex worker rights activists, 80 % of the sex worker community are migrants, mainly coming from Latin America, Northern Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia.

Italy has experienced significant inflows of Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan African workers in recent decades and has also been receiving a large volume of asylum-seekers, particularly through the sea. The country registered more than 335,000 irregular arrivals via the Mediterranean during 2015-16. 

The Southern part of Italy has for long been facing economic hardships, accordingly, sex workers live and work under worse conditions. Many of those living in refugee camps rely on selling sex, while migrant workers face exploitative conditions in agriculture, construction and other industries.

Legal framework

Sex work is not illegal in the country, but all associated activities are, such as profiting from the prostitution of others; maintaining a house for the purpose of prostitution and enticing or procuring for prostitution. Sex work is not recognised as work, therefore it is not possible to work even as self-employed.

Soliciting in public is criminalised as is working indoors (although this is widely tolerated). Many local areas have additional by-laws explicitly prohibiting soliciting for sex in the streets with high fines. It is also illegal to share premises with another sex worker. Municipalities furthermore use ordinances of public order to fine sex workers, which might result in the rejection of residence applications, when unpaid. 

Since 2008, Operation Safe Streets, a public security programme has been in place, which uses Italian armed forces to combat crime in Italy. The programme has been widely criticized as one of the key measures to crackdown on immigration, administer migrant processing centres and patrol immigrant areas of Italy’s cities, including Roma settlements.

Impact of COVID-19 on the community

  • The first lockdowns began around mid-February 2020, covering eleven municipalities in Lombardy. Strict lockdown measures were expanded in the following weeks. On the evening of 9 March, the quarantine measures were expanded to the entire country, closing down schools and non-essential businesses and confining people to their homes for all but essential reasons. Phase 2 with eased restrictions started on 4 May, with the possibility of visiting relatives close by and exercising outdoors.
  • Sex workers reported a huge decline in the number of clients from February on and have almost abandoned the streets due to the fear of contagion and out of a sense of responsibility for public health upon the introduction of lockdown measures.
  • Sex workers from all around the country reported a high level of police surveillance since the introduction of lockdowns: police were escorting them home from their street working places and called them based on their online advertisements, which caused huge distress amongst the community, especially (undocumented) migrants.
  • Support services and outreach organisations maintained contact with their sex worker clients via telephone to provide information about health and containment measures in place. However, sex workers are harder to reach without in-person meetings and there is less information about the wellbeing of the most precarious.
  • Housing insecurity is one of the main concerns of sex workers: it has been reported that many have been pushed to the streets, such as a group of transgender sex workers having to sleep under a bridge in Florence. In the absence of formal rental contracts, many sex workers struggle to negotiate with their exploitative landlords.
  • Access to health, especially sexual and reproductive health services, harm reduction and transition-related healthcare have been compromised, which led to mental health crises amongst many sex workers.
  • Deportations were suspended under the national lockdown: it is reported that 8 women remained in the Rome immigration detention centre until Phase 2 starting on 4 May. However, even when detentions and deportations were suspended, migrant sex workers detected on the street were given expulsion orders. On the week of 4 May with eased restrictions introduced, activists reported 4 women detained.
  • The situation is especially dire in the Southern parts of Italy: in Naples, street-based sex workers, mainly Italian national women, started to work due to the lack of other options to survive. They faced multiple fines, each in the amount of 400 EURs and physical violence from police officials, who were behaving in abusive ways calling sex workers ‘vectors of disease’.

Actions on the ground

Sex worker rights groups and anti-trafficking and other service providers – altogether 18 organisations – mobilise to document the situation sex workers are facing across Italy, set up an emergency fund and distribute relief: