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Rethinking Transactional Sex in Humanitarian Settings: Reflections for the way forward

Transactional Sex (TS) is often used as an umbrella term to encompass a wide range of practices ranging from sex work to sexual exploitation and abuse. TS is typically framed in humanitarian settings through reductive lenses that portray the person engaged in them as without agency, forced into “negative coping strategies” by a larger crisis. Academics and practitioners have challenged these dominant framings in the Transactional Sex in Humanitarian Contexts panel as part of the 6th International Humanitarian Studies Conference. The presentations highlighted both the complexity and the nuanced nature of TS in different contexts, and common trends spanning a broad spectrum of humanitarian and displacement settings, including Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), France, Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan, Switzerland, Syria, and Turkey. The panel offered a reflection of the ideologies and frameworks implicit in humanitarian operations, which can blind us to the diverse needs and strategies of those engaged in transactional sex.

Transactional sex in humanitarian contexts: contemporary paradigms and interpretations

Transactional sex is the exchange of sex for cash, goods, services, commodities, or privileges. It is often framed by humanitarians as a form of violence in and of itself. Characterised by victim/saviour relationships and rescue narratives, these problematic and essentialising representations can have real world implications on policy and programming, along with unintended, often negative impacts on the lives of those engaged in them. To further complicate matters, there is a lack of conceptual clarity, and standardised and consistent use of terminology, such that what many describe as “transactional sex” is commonly conflated and used interchangeably with survival sex, sexual exploitation and abuse, sex work or sex trafficking.

Transactional sexual relationships exist on a spectrum encompassing various states of consent, power, emotional attachment, economic compensation, and social acceptability. All panelists highlighted that the lived experiences of those engaged in transactional sex do not align well with these monolithic representations, and are rather shaped by numerous structural factors, relating to historical pathways of patriarchy, conflict conditions, and other social, economic, and individual factors that often intersect with intimate consensual relationships. There is growing recognition that interpretations of transactional sexual relationships are culturally determined and constructed, and that this work involves complex negotiation of strategies of agency. Transactional sex occurs against a backdrop of gendered social norms, which are constantly shifting, and may vary between and within countries and communities.

Limitations and challenges of the current discourse

This is not to say that transactional sex is necessarily a safe or desirable livelihood strategy. Transactional sexual relationships are shaped by various structural drivers and conditions that are often created by migration, and aid policies and politics, among other inherent power disparities that entail risks of gender-based violence, and negative impacts on sexual and reproductive health. However, it is crucial to recognise that individuals weigh such risks in relation to their own lives and define what safety and protection means for them. This is further shaped by other factors relating to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, social and cultural factors, and disability, for example. Research and empirical insights from practitioners are increasingly challenging the erasures of non-heteronormative experiences of transactional sex and calling for more intersectional approaches in research and programming.

People engaging in transactional sex and civil society groups, including human rights defenders, health advocates, sex worker-led organisations, NGOs, and grassroots movements, have already provided rich empirical insights and recommendations across a wide-range contexts, which, however, have not been taken up meaningfully by the humanitarian community. For example, in the post-panel Q&A it was highlighted how the Women´s Refugee Commission (WRC) Working with Refugees Engaged in Sex Work: A Guidance Note for Humanitarians, issued in 2016, might have been overshadowed by the #Aidtoo movement in 2017, and how a moral panic seldom allows for nuance and complexity. Moreover, we may also need to recognise that not all those who engage in TS identify as sex workers, and humanitarian actors do not necessarily see TS as sex work, which may be why such guidance can be interpreted very narrowly.  More recently, UNHCR and UNFPA launched the operational guideline Responding to the health and protection needs of people selling or exchanging sex in humanitarian settings  (2021) which will hopefully provide a clearer framework going forward in this regard.

The way forward: Rethinking transactional sex policy and programmes.

It is crucial to examine whose knowledge, voice, and power drives policy – or lack of it – on issues around TS, and how people engaged in TS in humanitarian settings, including migrants and refugees, become problematised, supported, and intervened upon by institutions based on vulnerabilities associated with and/or biases regarding gender, sexual behaviour and orientation. It is worth reflecting on why some experiences are omitted or marginalised, and how conditions of vulnerabilities are created by these very same institutions.

Transactional sex will continue to be a coping strategy for many individuals who make complex decisions and tradeoffs in humanitarian and displacement settings. Sometimes it may be the least risky option compared to the available alternatives. Bringing in the perspectives from and lived experiences of people engaging in transactional sex offers a crucial step in understanding their lives, decision-making process, desires, needs, or wants, and understanding. This includes, for example, the structural conditions and policies imposed by governments and humanitarian institutions that drive people into this practice, as well as considerations about whether they want to continue to engage in transactional sex safely or find other strategies. Ensuring sustainable and inclusive programming, and refraining from causing harm by perpetuating stigma and exclusion, centres on this more holistic reimagining of the issue of transactional sex as a complex social phenomenon.

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About the authors:

Clea Kahn has nearly 25 years of experience in the humanitarian sector in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. She holds an LL.M. in international human rights law, an MSc in psychology, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in counselling psychology. Clea focuses on protection of civilians, gender-based violence and migration/refugee issues, and is a member of the ListenH project: Livelihoods and transactional sex in Humanitarian Crises. She can be contacted at cleakahn@cleakahn.com.

Michelle Alm Engvall is a cultural anthropologist with a specialty in sex work and humanitarian action. Her research focuses on how framed understandings of transactional sex influence policy and programming and how this can lead to unintended consequences for affected populations. She can be contacted at michelle.a.engvall@gmail.com

Shirin Heidari is a senior researcher at the Global Health Centre, and research affiliate at the Gender Centre, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. She is the principal investigator of a multi-country multi-disciplinary research on transactional sex and health repercussions in forced displacement. She can be contacted at: shirin.heidari@graduateinstitute.ch

Megan Denise Smith is a humanitarian worker and gender-based violence specialist with ten years of experience working with migrants and refugees in Bangladesh, Egypt, Lebanon, Rwanda, and the UK. She is currently based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) where she has managed IOM´s GBV programming as part of the Rohingya refugee response since 2017. She can be contacted at megandenisesmith@gmail.com

Dorothea Hilhorst

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University. Her focus is on aid-society relations: studying how aid is embedded in the context. She coordinates the ListenH project: Livelihoods and transactional sex in Humanitarian Crises. Email: hilhorst@iss.nl Twitter: @hilhorst_thea

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Between resilience and vulnerability: the dilemma of refugee resettlement by Mahardhika Sjamsoe’oed Sadjad

Many of the 25.4 million refugees worldwide are living a life in limbo, forced to face a grave dilemma due to the uncertainty of resettlement: while living a life in transit seems to make them more resilient, this could undermine their chances of being resettled. Based on observations while doing research and working with refugees in Cisarua, Indonesia, this article argues that vulnerability and resilience are actually two sides of the same coin.

When we entered the new year of 2019, many of us gave meaning to this annual change in our Gregorian calendars through new resolutions, resolved disappointments, and exciting future plans. For many of the 25.4 million refugees worldwide, however, the passing of a new year marked more time waiting in limbo. This is certainly the case for most of the estimated 13,840 foreign refugees (UNHCR 2017) currently living in Indonesia, the majority of which come from Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Somalia.

This article wishes to highlight the dilemma many refugees are forced to face due to the increasing uncertainty of resettlement. Many refugees I spoke to felt that their resilience to survive a life of indefinite transit, could undermine their chances of getting resettled. I became aware of this dilemma while spending some months in 2018, working with and doing ethnographic research on the reception of refugees in both Cisarua and Jakarta, Indonesia. While my study focuses on the reactions and responses of Indonesian host communities, it also involved volunteering at the Refugee Learning Centre (RLC) in Cisarua. This article is written based on some of my conversations and observations during this experience.

Not-so-temporary refuge in Indonesia

For most refugees I spoke to, life in Indonesia is often described with a sense of temporariness, a point of transit before being resettled. “If no one comes any more to Indonesia and the number of places for resettlement remain the same, UNHCR will need up to 25 years to resettle everyone,” said a staff member of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at an information session on 27 April 2018, at RLC in Cisarua. She emphasised again: “If no one else comes, but people are still coming”. Refugees were informed that resettlement opportunities to a third country have become increasingly unavailable and that it is not a right every refugee is entitled to. However, when both voluntary repatriation and local integration are not available options for most refugees living in Indonesia, many still see resettlement as their only means to a life of peace.

During this information session, the UNHCR staff member also explained that they will need to prioritise resettlement for refugees deemed most vulnerable. While all refugees are vulnerable, if only by virtue of the traumas they carry and their precarious legal status in host countries like Indonesia, resettlement opportunities prioritise the most vulnerable among the vulnerable[1]. Unaccompanied minors, people with disabilities and health concerns, survivors of torture and violence, and other groups at risk are meant to get to the top of the ‘priority list’ for resettlement. Considering how countries around the world are increasingly closing their borders to refugees, this need to prioritise is understandable.

However, it also has unintended consequences. When the vulnerable become the deserving, many refugees are forced to face a dilemma between resilience and vulnerability.

Between resilience and vulnerability

Refugees I’ve talked to have expressed concerns that displaying an ‘active’ life in Indonesia might be interpreted as a display of resilience, which might push them down the ‘priority list’ for resettlement. “We need to be active to survive this period of waiting in Indonesia. But if we’re active we aren’t seen as vulnerable, and if we aren’t vulnerable, we can’t get resettled,” said a refugee I spoke to in Cisarua. A manager at RLC in Cisarua where I volunteered told me that some parents even blame the success of refugee-run learning centres for the decrease of resettlement opportunities.

Utas (2005, 408) criticises the portrayal of agency and victimhood as oppositional, and instead uses victimcy to discuss Liberian women’s self-representation as victims of war as means for the social navigation of war zones. Similarly, for refugees, vulnerability can become a tool to navigate resettlement opportunities. Since so much depends on refugees’ narratives of insecurity, the ability to assert one’s vulnerability becomes a means to create space for negotiation (Jansen 2008, 584). However, as the waiting period for resettlement is extended indefinitely, refugees must simultaneously navigate a life of seemingly endless ‘transit’.

One evening, I was invited to dinner by a friend who is also a refugee in Cisarua. His mother showed me with pride her homemade yoghurt and bread – two foods not common in an Indonesian kitchen. According to my friend, refugee women in Cisarua had learned of a local Indonesian blacksmith that could build a similar oven as they used back home to bake bread. In the case of refugees in Cisarua, there is agency in the building of communities with learning centres, networks of shops with spices and foods, and religious holiday rituals that remind them of where they came from.

If refugees’ families are slowly adjusting to life in transit despite the lack of access to formal education and livelihood, will they still be considered for resettlement? The UNHCR has responded to questions such as these by saying that the two are unrelated. When I mentioned this to several refugees at RLC, those I spoke to were unconvinced. One argued it would be impossible to really know why one family gets resettled while another doesn’t, since these decisions are made behind closed doors. When those who don’t get to the top of the priority list may never get resettled and are at risk of being stranded indefinitely, it is easy to empathise with refugees feeling discouraged.

Two sides of the same coin

How refugees are portrayed also influence the reception they receive from local host communities. “Is it true that refugees don’t have to work and still get money?” an angkot[2] driver asked me. A seller at a food stall in Cisarua once commented, “The refugees here aren’t like the ones I see in the news. They are better off than us.”

Most Indonesians I talked to are not aware that many refugees live independently, trying to make the funds they have last as long as possible during their time in transit. While some groups of refugees have escaped structural oppressions that prevented them from obtaining any education and employment, others who escaped conflicts and persecution may have lost their degrees and certificates along the way. Framing refugees’ lives through one-dimensional narratives of vulnerability and victimhood easily leads to misunderstandings, unwarranted suspicions, and prejudices.

Waiting for resettlement is not a passive endeavour. One needs to stay consistently motivated to fill the days and not fall into the depths of depression. RLC is constantly buzzing with activities that refugees organise for themselves: futsal practice and tournaments, GED preparation courses for young people, teaching workshops for teachers, language courses for adults. If there is one lesson to learn from friends at RLC, it is that vulnerability and resilience are not two opposite sides of a spectrum. Instead, they are two sides of the same coin. Demonstrating resilience doesn’t suggest an absence of vulnerability, and surviving a life of vulnerabilities can only be done with a great dose of resilience.

[1] The conversations and presentations I observed during my fieldwork presented refugee resettlement to third countries on the basis of vulnerability. However, it is necessary to acknowledge that countries have different resettlement preferences and resettlement can be granted on the basis of vulnerability and on the basis of merit (Hilhorst and Jansen 2010, 1126-1127).

[2] Local public transportation in the form of small minivans

Hilhorst, Dorothea and Bram J. Jansen (2010) “Humanitarian Space as Arena: A Perspective on the Everyday Politics of Aid,” Development and Change, 41(6): 1117–1139.
Jansen, B. J. (2008) “Between Vulnerability and Assertiveness : Negotiating Resettlement in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya,” African Affairs, 107(429), pp. 569–588.
UNHCR (2017) “2017 Year-end Report: Operation: Indonesia’ (A webpage of UNHCR). Accessed 14 January 2019 http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/pdfsummaries/GR2017-Indonesia-eng.pdf
Utas, M. (2005) “Victimcy, Girlfriending, Soldiering: Tactic Agency in a Young Woman’s Social Navigation of the Liberian War Zone,” Anthropological Quarterly, 78(2), pp. 403–430.

About the author:

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Mahardhika Sjamsoe’oed Sadjad is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies. Her research analyses identity discourses in refugee reception in Indonesia. This article was inspired by conversations she had with Abdullah Sarwari, the Principal of the Refugee Learning Centre and a refugee currently living in Cisarua.