Midnight Blue followed the cases of more than 40 transgender sex workers who were arrested in Hong Kong over a period of four years. They found that the actions of law enforcement agencies seriously infringed the human rights of sex workers, and caused them significant psychological and emotional harm.
Almost all of the transgender sex workers were sent to a psychiatric centre. And the majority were transferred to the immigration department for deportation at the end of their prison term.
The violations of sex workers’ rights often began at the time of arrest. Police posed as clients to solicit sexual services, but after the sex workers agreed the police then arrested them and charged the sex workers themselves with soliciting. Once arrested, transgender sex workers were often subjected to humiliating strip searches by male police officers, despite the sex workers identifying as women. Hong Kong police told Midnight Blue their official policy on conducting searches was to assign officers based on the gender marked on the identity documents of the accused.
After being arrested, transgender sex workers were either sent to a psychiatric centre, or to prison. In Hong Kong transgender people are still regarded as having “gender identity disorder” or “gender dysphoria” and are placed alongside people with mental health problems. However, even in this medical facility, arrested transgender sex workers were only held with other women if they had completed male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. Those who had only undergone breast augmentation were held with men.
Sex workers who are sent to prison are also detained based on the gender on their identity documents. In prison “flattop” haircuts are compulsory for people below a certain age and prison staff have a “statutory duty” to conduct invasive body searches – again, by male staff where the prisoner’s identity documents indicate male. Hormone therapy is not available in prison, leading to interruptions in treatment, feeling unwell, and re-emergence of male physical features. This caused major psychological distress to imprisoned transgender sex workers.
Failure to provide gender-appropriate clothing also caused the sex workers distress. And the lack of availability of private or gender appropriate toilet facilities endangered their safety.
After completing their custodial sentences either in prison or the psychiatric centre, migrant sex workers were sent to the immigration department for deportation. At the immigration centre they were held in solitary confinement with 24 hour-a-day lighting in cells with poor hygiene. Just ten minutes outside the cell per day were allowed for showering. One sex worker was held in these conditions for over a month – circumstances so extreme the UN classifies it as torture.
Midnight Blue has complained and protested the inhumane treatment of transgender sex workers with the Police Force, the Correctional Services Department, and the Immigration Department.
Through documentation, protest, solidarity and advocacy, Midnight Blue have called for a review of current working instructions and the establishment of new guidelines that respect the concerns and human rights of transgender people.
A legal challenge against police and the Correctional Services Department is also ongoing. The hearings closed in August, but no date has been set for the announcing the results of the judicial review.
Midnight Blue is a non-governmental organisation working with male and transgender sex workers in Hong Kong to protect the rights of sex workers, promote decriminalisation of sex work, and advocate gender equality. Midnight Blue was one of several organisations in Hong Kong who contributed to Amnesty International’s recent research in the report “Harmfully Isolated – Criminalizing Sex Work In Hong Kong.”
The findings in this article are available for download as a pdf document.