Human trafficking is often considered to be a problem far removed from us here in Ireland, but as Gráinne Loughran discovers, the problem is far from gone.

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Most of us would say that slavery doesn’t exist in modern day Ireland. It is often described in the past tense, and spoken of in terms of the US and other countries. The truth is that modern day slavery exists in most countries across Europe and the world, including Ireland, and it does so in the form of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a secretive but lucrative business in which people are threatened or coerced into travelling for the purpose of being exploited by another person or group of people. They may be forced to work for unfair pay or no pay, under poor working conditions or in sexually exploitative situations such as prostitution. It is difficult for the authorities to give exact figures on the number of people who are trafficked to Ireland each year, given the secrecy that is involved and the fact that there is little way of knowing how many cases are not identified by the authorities. The most recent available government statistics on the Blue Blindfold website state that the authorities identified 46 suspected trafficking victims in 2014; nearly one person per week.

“They are often advertised online and they are regularly moved from brothel to brothel all around the country so that they never get to put down any roots or have the opportunity to seek help.”

The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) have done significant work since they began fifteen years ago with victims of human trafficking and campaigning for changes in legislation. Gráinne O’Toole from the MRCI says that human trafficking is a “significant problem” in Ireland: “We have dealt with over 220 cases of trafficking for labour exploitation in the last seven and a half years. This would be trafficking and forced labour in the domestic work sector, construction, in the mushroom industry, in restaurants, circuses, care; so all the sectors that are under-regulated and where there’s no trade union membership. More recently, we’re seeing it in the last number of years, cases in car washes all around the country, the issue of au pairs, and we also see it in the cannabis production industry as well, that’s more around criminal exploitation which is a form of forced labour as well. From the trends here and across Europe, we think we’re only at the tip of the iceberg.”

A shocking 32 of the 46 suspected victims of trafficking identified by authorities, according to Blue Blindfold, were suspected to have been forced into sexual exploitation. Ruhama is a Dublin-based NGO that helps women who have been affected by prostitution and sexual exploitation. Ruth Breslin, Policy and Communications Manager with Ruhama, says that “The most recent research data we have indicates that there are up to 1,000 women in the off-street sex trade in Ireland (i.e. in premises that operate as brothels). The same research estimates that up to 97 per cent of women in off-street locations are migrant women. This is not to say that all these women have been trafficked, but certainly a significant proportion have been. Ruhama supports women who have been affected by prostitution, whether now or in the past. Every year we work with around 300 women, and typically about one third of these will have been trafficked into prostitution. Our last official stats are from 2014 – that year we supported 304 women, 88 of whom had been trafficked. We are currently working on our data for 2015 – where these numbers are very similar.”

Due to the secretive nature of human trafficking, national organisations as well as NGOs like Ruhama are usually reliant on victims of trafficking coming forward to ask for help; not an ideal situation for helping victims, or identifying cases. Although networks among workers are constantly being built, generally the MRCI hear about trafficking cases through concerned civilians. “The way we hear [about cases of trafficking in domestic work] is through our network of domestic workers, because we’ve built it up, so there is some infrastructure there, it’s not all by chance,” says O’Toole. “Because of our work there, we’re very likely to get cases from there because we’re very well networked in, but it is often like that, for example, it could be that someone contacts us if they have concerns. They’ve seen cleaners brought in who have been living next door, who can’t speak English, they seem to be there long hours. Or the car washes for example, we would have heard of those through another NGO. Or a farm for example, a few weeks ago on a daffodil farm, someone, a local person who had gone working there, realised the conditions were awful and reported it to us.”

Once trafficked to Ireland, the conditions can be horrific. Victims can be highly controlled through threats and coercion, and those with family dependents at home can feel trapped in their situation due to the need to provide for their family. “For the women we support who have been trafficked – they are often very isolated, their movements are monitored by their controllers, and very few know where to turn for help, especially if they are unfamiliar with Ireland and speak limited or no English,” says Breslin. “They are often advertised online (with ads arranged and managed by their controllers), and they are regularly moved from brothel to brothel all around the country so that they never get to put down any roots or have the opportunity to seek help. Some may be experiencing ‘debt bondage’ – i.e. an inflated debt that they must pay back to their trafficker, some get to keep some of they money they earn (usually to send home), others do not and are entirely reliant on those who control them. Many women live and sleep wherever they sell sex; they have no specific place to call ‘home’.”

“The au pair industry for example, we have forty cases at the moment,” says O’Toole. “A big problem was that au pairs were fearful of coming forwards because they weren’t treated as workers.”

The word “fear” crops up again and again in discussions about human trafficking. The world of a human trafficking victim can be one of fear and entrapment, and it takes a lot of work to free people from such situations. O’Toole describes the process that the MRCI use to help people escape from these situations. “We would help people escape, if you like, from places, so what we would do is usually we try to get a mobile to the person or if they have a mobile we would start saying to them ‘look, you can leave this’. We help people realise that it’s okay to leave the situation, that there is help out there, because some people would have absolutely no knowledge of the system. So then it would take a number of months of work, we would go and meet the person at an agreed time that they feel safe and their employer may not be around, and they may not come with us that time, they may get scared. But when they do come, no matter what time of night we would go and help them collect their bags, and bring them into a safe place. We would notify An Garda Síochána if we were doing that, and if we were concerned that there were safety issues the guards would be there.”

Unfortunately and horrifically, escaping from a trafficking situation does not always mean an end to unfair treatment for a victim. O’Toole says that the people they take out of situations of trafficking are often given accommodation in direct provision centres until they can access further services for them. “It’s very poor and it’s not fit for asylum seekers or victims of trafficking, but people are placed there and you want to move them out of there quickly and you want to move them on.”

The next step in moving on from a trafficking situation is a difficult one on a personal level. “It’s a difficult journey, what we recommend is that people need to be identified very quickly as victims of the crime per se, but they’re only victims in the legal sense, that people need to move on with their lives,” says O’Toole. “In labour cases it’s very much about trying to find work because in many cases the people we work with will have a family at home reliant on them, which is a huge source of stress… regardless of the situation they’re in, they should be identified quickly, offered services, because that reduces trauma or revictimisation in any way.”

“As the main support agency working with women who have been trafficked into prostitution in Ireland, a lot of our work is about helping to rebuild women’s lives after the trauma of being controlled and sexually exploited,” says Breslin. “So via our casework service, we offer support and advocacy with a range of practical issues – physical and sexual health, housing, social welfare, immigration etc. But we also work with women to rebuild their strength, their resilience, and their independence – through counselling, personal and professional development courses, trauma healing work, and support with accessing/returning to education and the workforce.”

From a legal standpoint, often the perpetrators of human trafficking are not prosecuted and Ireland was behind the times when it came to legislating for it. The Criminal Law Trafficking in Persons Act 2008 officially recognised human trafficking as a crime, with the former legislation never bringing about a successful prosecution for trafficking. It was not until 2013 that forced labour was criminalised in Ireland, as a result of campaigning by the MRCI.

“In terms of prosecutions, Ireland has a very poor record in this regard – I don’t know the exact latest figures but very few convictions for trafficking have ever been secured for trafficking in Ireland since the relevant legislation came in in 2008,” says Breslin. “Where a trafficker does end up in court, the charges are often reduced to other charges related to controlling prostitution, but that have a lesser sentence than for trafficking. This is a very problematic situation in that it gives traffickers the message that they can operate with ease in Ireland and are likely to avoid serious convictions. Given that the vast majority of prostitution in Ireland is run by organised crime gangs, there is certainly a sense that sexually exploiting vulnerable women for gain here is essentially ‘easy money’ for them.”

“The human trafficking legislation came out in 2008 and we quickly identified that it wasn’t strong enough or clear enough to be able to prosecute forced labour to the full extent,” says O’Toole. “Last year was the first time we saw arrests of people, so people were arrested and charged with crimes under the [2013] legislation. The full extent of that, we don’t know yet, but it was the first time there were any arrests in relation to that, and we’re happy to see progress being made.”

When it comes to ending the problem of human trafficking, there are no easy answers. Breslin says that ending sex trafficking specifically has to come down to breaking down the business model. “We need to tackle the business model of pimps and traffickers (who as I said are running most of the prostitution in Ireland as part of criminal gangs/networks). In short: ‘no buyers, no business’. So we want to tackle the demand side of prostitution – the fact that a market exists of customers (almost exclusively men) who want to buy sexual access to women’s bodies, purely for their own sexual pleasure. On this basis, prostitution is obviously highly contrary to the achievement of gender equality. We believe that buyers should be held to account for their actions, especially given that so many of the women they are purchasing are very vulnerable. For many years now we have been calling (as core members of the Turn Off the Red Light campaign) for laws that decriminalise those who sell sex (so that no vulnerable people in prostitution are arrested/punished and given criminal records), while at the same time criminalising those who purchase sex.”

O’Toole says in relation to labour exploitation that “These kinds of practices need to be tackled head on and I think the whole issue of trafficking for labour exploitation needs to be seen in the broader framework of labour rights, otherwise we see it just as a criminal activity on the severe end of the continuum of labour exploitation, when in fact, we’ve got to really get our preventative tools right and our regulations right and make employers come on board to arrange an initiative. Because unless we change the behaviours, we can have all the laws that we want. We have great human trafficking and forced labour laws in Ireland, yet recruitment of fishermen, human trafficking was occurring under our noses. So now we have an opportunity to fix that.”

Breslin is hopeful that the Sexual Offences Bill will help towards reducing sex trafficking in Ireland by fining buyers. “The punishment for buyers is just a fine – but it has a ‘chilling effect’ on the market, as has been shown in other countries, for successfully deterring many men from purchasing sex – primarily because they don’t want to get caught, their families to find out etc. These laws form part of the new Sexual Offences Bill, which was before the Dail and very close to being passed just before it was dissolved for the general election.”

The upcoming Sexual Offences Bill and the 2013 legislation on forced labour are just the beginning in ending labour and sex trafficking in Ireland. The legislation is there and the will to end trafficking is there; but only time will tell whether their implementation will succeed. O’Toole is hopeful for the future: “When we get to that level of confidence across our policies and procedures we can end trafficking. The tools are available to us.” Ending human trafficking can’t happen soon enough.