Belfast Telegraph

We need more conviction to free our modern-day slaves

There has only been one successful prosecution for people trafficking in Northern Ireland. That has to change, says Grainne Teggart

Today is International Women's Day; a day to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women worldwide and highlight what still needs to happen to improve their access to rights.

Some people might wonder what this has to do with Northern Ireland. After all, this is a first world, democratic country, where rights are enjoyed by all. Isn't it?

Sadly, the growing problem of human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland means that many women are suffering grave human rights abuses on a daily basis and are denied basic rights of freedom from slavery, freedom of movement and freedom from discrimination.

Amnesty International believes the time has come to close the gaps which are failing trafficking victims - and allowing their perpetrators to operate.

We have found responses to this crime to be seriously wanting and are calling today for better co-ordination between police, Government and all relevant organisations to maximise prosecutions of people traffickers and ensure that the programme of services available for victims - including counselling, immigration advice, welfare and legal advice - is consistent and coherent.

Among our proposals is the appointment of an overseer for the whole region, in charge of co-ordinating efforts to stamp out this trade in human beings.

We have already made some strides in the right direction, with tougher sentences introduced for brothel-runners in 2008 (the maximum penalty rising from six months to seven years), the setting up of an Assembly all-party group on human trafficking and via the Organised Crime Task Force, a multi-agency partnership between Government departments, including the Department of Justice, and statutory bodies, such as the PSNI.

However, when much of the true problem remains hidden, it can be hard to know how much of an impact we are having. This year has seen the first conviction of one trafficker - Hungary-born Matyas Pis - who was found guilty and convicted of human trafficking and running a brothel.

Most trafficking victims are women, a great many of whom end up in Northern Irish brothels. Known estimates numbered around 70 in 2006, but were said by police to have reached 88 by 2011.

It is difficult to find reliable figures about the numbers involved; for instance, many brothels are temporary and disappear before police can take action.

But human trafficking is not just about sexual exploitation. Many other victims are pressed into domestic servitude and effectively imprisoned.

Others may be forced by gangs into growing drugs, like cannabis, and risk being treated like drug-runners themselves if caught. For the victims, all this spells human misery. For the criminal gangs, it spells big business.

Northern Ireland, fortunately, has shown some real political will to hit back. Amnesty welcomes the steps that have been taken so far, but there are failings that need to be addressed. We are still waiting for new guidance from the Public Prosecution Service on prosecution of perpetrators of trafficking; this guidance was expected last year.

Lack of prosecutions is a real issue in tackling trafficking here and, while we welcome the first conviction of one trafficker, it is absolutely critical that more follow to send a clear message that Northern Ireland will not accept this modern-day slavery. We would also like to see a regional rapporteur in charge of overseeing the Northern Ireland response to this issue.

Today should serve as a reminder that we need to renew our vigilance and the public need to open their eyes to trafficking so the rights of women - and all trafficking victims - can't be trampled on.

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