Half of Northern Ireland's human trafficking victims are sexually exploited
Almost half of human trafficking victims in Northern Ireland were sexually exploited, a new report has found.
Of the 37 men, women and children rescued last year, 46% (17) had been forced into prostitution, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.
Most were from Romania but citizens of 11 countries including Macedonia, Ghana and China were also illegally recruited through online dating, social media websites and fake internet job advertisements.
Liam Vernon, head of the United Kingdom Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC), said it was a vicious trade in human misery.
"Human trafficking for the purposes of exploitation is an insidious and complex crime and much of the exploitation is hidden from view," he said.
"The NCA is committed to continually disrupting what is a vicious and criminal trade in human misery, which exploits the most vulnerable people, both here and abroad, for financial gain."
The NCA report, which assessed the nature and scale of human trafficking across the UK during 2013, also found that 10 people had been exploited for their labour in the farming, manufacturing or construction sectors. A further five suffered multiple exploitation.
The NCA, which targets crime gangs across local, national and international borders, began operating in the rest of the UK last year.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP have blocked its operation in Northern Ireland over fears of accountability.
Its head reports directly to the Home Secretary and not to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable, the Policing Board or the Police Ombudsman.
Justice Minister David Ford has repeatedly claimed that preventing the NCA operating in Northern Ireland allows criminals to expose legal loopholes.
Across the whole of the UK 2,744 people, including 602 children, were potential victims of trafficking for exploitation in 2013, an increase of 22% on 2012.
Modern Slavery and Organised Crime Minister Karen Bradley said: "Modern slavery is an appalling crime that has no place in today's society. Yet these figures show it is taking place here – often out of sight – in shops, fields, building sites and behind the curtains of houses on ordinary streets."
During 2011/12 a total of 33 potential human trafficking victims were rescued in Northern Ireland.
Politicians at Stormont are currently considering introducing new legislation to tackle the issues.
A Private Member's Bill proposed by DUP MLA Lord Maurice Morrow contains 19 clauses updating laws on prostitution and trafficking and could set a two-year prison sentence for trafficking or slavery offences.
It is based on a 15-year-old Swedish law which criminalises anyone who pays for sex, and has received backing from women's groups as well as law reform lobbyists.