Stormont should adopt Germany's prostitution laws – where the sex trade is completely legal – in a bid to help stop human trafficking, a leading criminologist has proposed.
Dr Graham Ellison was reacting to Lord Morrow's Private Member's Bill which would impose Swedish-style restrictions on the sex trade in Northern Ireland.
In Sweden prostitutes can operate freely but it is illegal to pay for their services. It is claimed that this has helped cut down sex trafficking and reduce street prostitution in major cities.
Dr Ellison, post-graduate research coordinator at Queen's University School of Law, questions this. He is working on a research project on sex work regulations in Berlin, Manchester, Prague and Belfast. Although Sweden is not included, one of his co-researchers is Dr Susan Dodillet of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
She believes Sweden's sex purchase law has made sex workers more vulnerable and "cannot be said to have decreased sex trafficking to the extent claimed". Like Dr Ellison, she favours a policy of decriminalising prostitution and regulating it. She said: "No system is perfect, but Germany has had considerable successes. According to official statistics, the number of victims of human trafficking has decreased significantly in the last 15 years."
Prostitution has been legal in Germany since the end of World War Two and in 2002 new laws put the sex trade almost on a par with other work. One exception, after a test case, is that the unemployed cannot be penalised for refusing work in the sex industry.
However, prostitutes can claim unemployment and sickness benefit and brothel owners must provide the same employment rights as other employers.
Dr Ellison said: "The German government estimated that there were 1,473 victims of human trafficking in the country in 1996 while the statistics of the past four years on record show steady figures of between 610 and 710 victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation."
This is a remarkable reduction because Germany is a wealthy country near the middle of Europe. It was considered a major destination for sex workers and also a major transit point for people being trafficked from the poorer east to the more affluent west.
Dr Ellision added: "I spoke to a senior officer in the Berlin Kriminalpolizei who conduct investigations into organised crime. She was emphatic that trafficking for sexual exploitation was not a significant problem.
"Generally, the more you criminalise something the more you drive it underground and into the hands of gangsters."