Sex slavery: the Northern Ireland connection
The lid is slowly being lifted on the seedy underworld of sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
Just days ago a Belfast court heard a crime gang had spent more than £50,000 seeking clients for young women trafficked illegally into Northern Ireland.
The raids on 13 suspected brothels here is merely the tip of the iceberg, as the PSNI have described trafficking and the sex trade as “emerging organised crime issues”.
Thousands of women and men are being trafficked all over the world for do mestic servitude and sexual exploitation is a multi-billion dollar industry. Victims are trapped, intimidated, often raped, tortured and then forced to engage in sexual activity with upwards of 15 men a day. The traffickers frequently move their captives from house to house to avoid detection.
In response to the problem of sexual exploitation, the Belfast Feminist Network and Amnesty QUB held a discussion evening on Tuesday with a panel of experts to gain an insight into the sex industry in Northern Ireland.
Event organiser Kellie Turtle said: “It is clear that raiding brothels is only a small part of the solution and we need to look at what happens to vulnerable people, and how they are supported and treated by the authorities as they try to recover.
“We also have to talk more openly about why so many people are forced into this industry and begin to tackle the demand for sex with prostituted women and girls. As long as men continue to hand over money to treat women like sex objects with no regard for their needs, there will always be those who will try to exploit people.
“It is now illegal to buy sex from people who have been forced or coerced but there seems to be a lack of confidence that this law will actually be enforced. Perhaps it is more important to raise awareness and change people's attitudes.”
Dr Helen Beckett from Barnardo’s Safe Choices Service was at the event to discuss the human rights issues faced by young people from Northern Ireland. She said figures will be made available next year to give an indication of the scale of sexual exploitation of children in Northern Ireland. She added: “We can’t tell the extent of sexual exploitation here because of the clandestine nature of the activity.”
Ciaran Helferty, Students’ Union President at Queen’s, described human trafficking as “the modern day form of slavery”.
He called for people to capitalise on the abhorrence of it and said there was “an urgent need to step up our response to human trafficking”.
Mr Helferty also noted that slave trade abolitionist William Wilberforce would be appalled by the extent of today’s problem.
After trafficking victims are rescued they are given protection, medical attention and counselling. They are then given a period of 45 days to decide if they want to assist police with their inquiries. Mr Helferty said it was not unreasonable that some women did not want to go down the legal route, as there are poor rates of conviction.
Amnesty are now calling for the creation of an all-party group on trafficking. “The response to this travesty must not just be sympathy,” he added.
Rebecca Dudley, a human rights consultant, said the scale of the trafficking problem here was proportionate to the population and on a separate point she spoke about how the realities of prostitution were a far cry from the “exotic, empowering Belle de Jour myth in wide currency”.
Alliance Party MLA for South Belfast Anna Lo called human trafficking a “heinous crime”. She spoke of how women were being brought to Northern Ireland, sometimes raped by gangs, and then forced into prostitution. “It’s not even slavery, it’s hell on earth.”
She called it an increasing problem in Northern Ireland and said Belfast was being used as a transit route by traffickers. She called for something to be done about how victims are treated should they not wish to co-operate with police. They often disappear because they too frightened to speak out, and sometimes their families at homes are threatened.
“It’s very important to keep our eyes and ears open,” Ms Lo added. “Be vigilant and if you are suspicious of anyone contact the police.”
A PSNI spokesperson said: “Earlier this year the PSNI Organised Crime Branch appointed senior officers to lead on the development of strategies to tackle the issue of human trafficking and the sex trade in Northern Ireland. The PSNI is committed to working with others in law enforcement and partner agencies to stop this insidious trade.
“We appeal to those men buying sex to recognise that as they may be part of the problem, by continuing the exploitation of vulnerable men and women. They may be breaking the law and they are supporting organised crime.”