16 'slaves' rescued from Armagh farm in PSNI crackdown
Police are trying to find further potential victims of human trafficking after 16 people were rescued from a south Armagh farm.
In one of the biggest policing operations against human trafficking in Northern Ireland, men and women aged between 18 and 45 were discovered during a search of farming premises in Newtownhamilton last Friday, the PSNI has said.
Officers spent the past few days identifying the individuals, who are believed to have been trafficked from eastern Europe for labour exploitation.
The PSNI's Human Trafficking Unit was assisted by HM Revenue and Customs, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the Health and Safety Executive and local police officers in the rescue bid.
In a separate investigation five more suspected victims were rescued in Belfast.
Detective Chief Inspector Douglas Grant, from the PSNI's Serious Crime Branch, said that due to the numbers involved and language challenges it would take time to form a clear picture of what had taken place in south Armagh.
"In terms of the number of potential victims, this is one of the largest operations we have mounted in the past year. We are following a number of definite lines of inquiry and our investigation will continue for some time," he said.
Mr Grant added: "Our priorities are clear: we will work with partner agencies to establish the histories and circumstances of these potential victims and seek to ensure they are provided with every possible assistance which is available through the National Referral Mechanism and the UK Human Trafficking Centre.
"At the same time, we will progress our investigation to establish how these people came to Northern Ireland and the arrangements under which they were working. Any evidence of illegal activity will be brought before the courts."
The five individuals rescued in the greater Belfast area are being looked after by police and partner agencies, Mr Grant said.
"It is important to stress to everyone in our community that police will act, with partners, to protect potential victims and apprehend those individuals or groups who would seek to take advantage of their circumstances for whatever reason," he added.
Justice Minister David Ford said initial investigations by the PSNI indicate that the men and women may have been subjected to forced labour.
"Forced labour is a form of modern-day slavery and there is no place for it in any society.
"I welcome the operation to assist these men and women who may have been cruelly exploited for the financial gain of others." Human trafficking carries a maximum sentence of life.