21 people 'rescued' in human trafficking probes in Northern Ireland
Twenty-one potential victims of human trafficking have been "rescued" in Northern Ireland, police said.
In two separate operations, 16 alleged victims of labour exploitation were removed from an agricultural setting in south Armagh while five others thought to have been trafficked were located in the Greater Belfast area.
In south Armagh, police searched premises in Newtownhamilton last Friday and have spent the days since working with partner agencies to identify the individuals who may have been trafficked.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said the proactive operation was focused on Eastern Europeans working in the agricultural sector.
The men and women, aged between 18 and 45, are now being cared for by Migrant Help and Women's Aid as part of the Department of Justice's human trafficking support network.
Detectives from the PSNI's Human Trafficking Unit worked with colleagues in HM Revenue and Customs, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the Health and Safety Executive and local PSNI officers.
PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Douglas Grant, from Serious Crime Branch, said: "In terms of the number of potential victims, this is one of the largest operations we have mounted in the past year. Due to the numbers involved, and the challenges posed by language issues, it will take some time to form a clear picture of what exactly has taken place.
"But we are following a number of definite lines of inquiry and our investigation will continue for some time.
"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.
"Police would urge employers in every sector of business to ensure they are operating within the law in terms of accessing labour and offering employees appropriate terms and conditions. Police will investigate any evidence of exploitation or trafficking."
Mr Grant said the five potential victims of trafficking identified in Belfast were being looked after by police and partner agencies.
"This is an entirely separate investigation but there are another five potential victims who need assistance and protection," he said.
"Our inquiries are at an early stage in relation to this development but 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. I would encourage anyone with information about human trafficking or who is a victim of trafficking to contact police."
Stormont's Justice Minister David Ford welcomed the action.
"Forced labour is a form of modern day slavery and there is no place for it in any society," he said in regard to the South Armagh operation.
"I welcome the operation to assist these men and women who may have been cruelly exploited for the financial gain of others. They are now being given extensive support while the circumstances are investigated.
"I also welcome the unrelated police action, which has led to another five potential victims of human trafficking being identified in Belfast.
"I know that the vast majority of employers are legitimate, but those who seek to use victims of trafficking can expect to feel the full weight of the law. These successful operations by the police and other agencies send a clear message to those who choose to exploit people. That message is that this appalling crime is not acceptable in any form and law enforcement agencies will pursue perpetrators. Furthermore, the Assembly has shown how seriously it views the offence by providing for a maximum sentence of life for any conviction.
"This type of cruelty has no place in our community ."