Belfast Telegraph

Human trafficking cases in Northern Ireland up 25% last year, says crime agency

Human trafficking in Northern Ireland
Human trafficking in Northern Ireland
Brett Campbell

By Brett Campbell

Drugs seizures in Northern Ireland increased by almost 10% last year, with the number of human trafficking cases up by over 25%, a new report has revealed.

The latest Organised Crime Task Force (OCTF) publication shows that law enforcement made big strides in the fight against crime last year, but it warns of significant Brexit challenges.

The 76-page document reveals that the PSNI made 7,490 drug seizures in 2018/19, a 9% increase on the previous year.

Cannabis accounted for 80% of seizures, with cocaine and benzodiazepines each accounting for around 13% of drugs prevented from reaching our streets.

The number of drug-related arrests also increased by nearly 6% to 3,306.

Approximately £1.4m worth of criminal assets have been recovered as a result of police disrupting 72 criminal operations being plotted by 72 separate gangs.

The director of the Department of Justice's Safer Communities project Claire Archbold said the progress sends a clear message to criminals.

"They will be pursued through the courts and their assets stripped," she said.

"These criminals offer nothing to the wider community and the OCTF remains determined to confront their every action."

The multi-agency forum's report, which was signed off by Permanent Secretary Peter May in the absence of a Stormont minister, boasts that up to £1bn in overall tax revenue has been protected.

That was helped by Border Force staff who confiscated huge quantities of illicit goods - including one million cigarettes, almost 10kg of Class A drugs and over €206,000 which was seized under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

However, the report warns that any trade tariffs resulting from a disorderly exit from the EU on October 31 could significantly impact the nature and scale of organised crime here.

"The OCTF assessment is that a no-deal scenario will lead to changes in criminal behaviours, with the emergence of potential new crime markets for previously legitimate commodities," it states.

The annual publication also says that measures must be put in place in any scenario to ensure ongoing co-operation with international partners, which is currently only enabled by EU membership.

It also warns that the "economic shock" caused by a hard border could fuel smuggling and result in criminal exploitation of new sectors leaving the agri-food industry particularly vulnerable.

A new Organised Crime Strategy for NI which will seek more effective tools and legislation is currently being developed.

National Crime Agency branch commander Billy Beattie said expanding Unexplained Wealth Orders to Northern Ireland will avoid "long and protracted" cases.

"Shifting the burden of proof onto suspects would help us greatly," he said.

Mr Beattie revealed that one suspect from Northern Ireland has had assets frozen in other parts of the UK, including a number of properties in London, as he vowed to use all powers available to him.

PSNI Detective Superintendent Rachel Shields said more co-operation is needed to tackle increasing demand for prescription drugs and a rise in risk-taking behaviour.

She also drew attention to the number of fraud cases including email scams and cold-calling which has risen by 15%.

Her colleague Detective Superintendent Richard Campbell warned that more businesses are being targeted by criminals seeking to compromise cyber security as a part of elaborate blackmail bids. "Our advice is do not pay a penny - they are more likely to come back with further demands for money," he warned.

The report reveals that 59 potential victims of modern slavery were identified in Northern Ireland within a 12-month period. Some 40% were suspected victims of labour exploitation, with 37% believed to be the victims of sexual exploitation.

Eight boys and seven girls under the age of 18 were among those rescued by authorities. However, only two of 15 people arrested for human trafficking related offences were charged.

It prompted calls for landlords and providers of adult services websites to do more to combat the problem following the 26% rise in cases.

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