Anti-immigrant sentiments plague sex workers of Geneva’s ‘Red-Light’ district

Women sex workers in the red-light district of Geneva, Switzerland
Women sex workers in the red-light district of Geneva, Switzerland stand on the streets as they try to pick up customers, June 2012. Image: Christina Saint Marche/Flickr

“…in spite of being an inherently pluralistic society, racism and intolerance appear to be on the rise in Switzerland,” said advocate and former Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg in a recent March 2012 formal letter addressed to Didier Burkhalter, who is Head of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

After Hammarberg made a February visit to Switzerland he witnessed: “…a disturbing xenophobic manifestation, widely reported in the press, consisting of aggressive, insulting slogans on the website of a local office belonging to a major political party, which targeted migrants coming from certain South East European countries.”

“These slogans were finally removed from the website following the reaction of the Federal Commission against Racism and others,” outlined Hammarberg.

Echoing recent xenophobic rhetoric by French politician Ms. Marine La Penn, some of the sex workers blamed their own economic downturn on increasing numbers of other immigrants that have come to Switzerland. Some even said the problem stemmed from Switzerland’s signing of the Schengen Agreement in 2008, which opened the gates wide for people traveling in, and out, of Switzerland.

There is no doubt, the large influx of immigrants has changed the face of the city. Switzerland has become, as many of the Swiss feel, well, “less Swiss.” Most of the anti-immigrant discourse seems to be focused especially on North African immigrants, regardless of their legal status.

“The Moroccans scare away the good customers,” says Maria, a 38-year-old afro-Cuban street prostitute who now works in Geneva’s red-light district. “They rob them [the customers] and then they don’t come back here and the police do nothing about it,” Maria continued. As for any of the customers that do come to the red-light district for services, more are skipping out on their bill. Others are becoming violent to avoid paying anything. “One guy bit my friend and then ran out without paying her,” outlined Maria.

Today crime is up in Geneva, which has overtaken Zurich as Switzerland’s ‘least safe’ city. Property theft has risen to 23 percent in one year in 2011 as break-in’s have risen 20 percent. Police officers are said to be adjusting to the rise in crime by spending more time patrolling the streets and less time doing paperwork, but that doesn’t appear to be the case as far as protection for the back street bars in Paquis go, where drug deals and other crimes happen in broad daylight.

“It’s just not safe.,” said Maria who now refuses to work at night.

For several years Maria has lived on-and-off in Geneva. Before that she lived in Italy for 18 years but was forced to leave her home when her 10 year-old daughter became very sick and their was not enough money to pay for her medical care, a sad but common story of poverty and desperation. Maria recounted how she also had to leave her youngest baby behind because she couldn’t find work in Italy as medical expenses were piling up and there was no one to help.

Finding solidarity with other migrant women who were in a similar situation as they came into Switzerland Maria says, “We are like sisters.”

Last fall Maria regularly had 10-12 customers a day and what she describes as “up to 15″ on the weekends. On her best days now she makes only half of what she made last fall: 5-7 customers. But Maria is not complaining. “Things are still better than in Italy,” she says.

Standing on the red-light district’s infamous street corner at the corner of Rue du Monthoux and Rue de Cusin, men in expensive suits and dress shirts walk up to the prostitutes of their choice. After a brief exchange they disappear into a dilapidated, communist-style apartment building. Looking up into the open window in the apartment, paint can be seen peeling off the walls of the tiny but brightly decorated room where cheap Chinese calendars, with perilously hanging wall-shelves, are piled with pairs of platform heels.

The dilapidated building serves as kind of a ‘sex worker cooperative,’ where women help each other when customers get belligerent or violent. It is also a place where they can share stories about their kids, as well as shoes, makeup and clothing.

Back in another dimly lit seedy room, in a another bar, red velour padded walls make it feel like it could be a brothel anywhere in the world. None of the girls working the place are European, let alone Swiss. It’s 10:30pm and three women, including a blond Moroccan transvestite, are sitting in a booth waiting for clients to show up.

Every once in awhile a woman gets up to get ready to start working. She heats up a microwaveable dinner; changes out of her jeans in a back room; and returns in a mini-skirt with stilettos. But she is dressed up for no reason. The clients tonight are only buying two glasses of the cheapest champagne in exchange for a half-hour make-out session in the smoking room.

The business of prostitution at this level is not easy. It is often silently grueling.

“It’s not like I dreamed of being a prostitute, you just do what you have to do to survive,” outlined Maria.


Switzerland today has a free movement agreement that allows migrants to ‘legally’ come to the region on a 3 month visa to work. This includes work for sex workers throughout Europe, and beyond, who work in the prostitution industry. As Swiss cities have dealt more and more with prostitutes working on the street, some citizen residents have become more and more alarmed at the activity and the problems this brings. This 3:04 min video is a May 2010 production by


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Some additional sources for this story include the Council of Europe, UMSCO, Geneva Tribune, UNAIDS, Swiss Federal Office of Public Health,, UNHCR, Kaiser Family Foundation, United States Department of State and Acta Psychiatrica Scandianvica. Some additional researched information has also been provided by the editors at WNN – Women News Network.


Carli Pierson worked as a legal intern from January through late April of 2012 at the Geneva headquarters of the International non-governmental organization International Bridges to Justice. She recently received her Juris Doctorate, with honors and a concentration in international law from Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad Law center in May of 2012. While in law school she worked for the Attorney General’s Office of Statewide Prosecution and for Senior Federal Judge John L. Kane. Prior to law school Carli worked as a broadcast news writer for WSVN in Miami, as an intern at CNN’s Chicago Bureau and as an occasional intern, producer and co-host for Radio Islam, the United State’s first call-in news radio show produced exclusively by Muslims for a wider audience.


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